Shannon Bardwell: Portrait of a painter

June 26, 2010 7:04:00 PM



After Katrina, they moved to Columbus to be near their only daughter. They had lost everything after 60 years of marriage, everything except each other. Occasionally she walks around the new house and picks up a doodad here or there and says, "Oh yes, we found this after the storm," or "A neighbor five houses down found this." Most of the photographs are gone except for snapshots she stored in her mind. 


At 84, she still stands regal, her gray hair upswept, her movements graceful. She''s an artist. The paintings are gone, but she has started painting again. She has had a lot of "starting again," and today she faces the same inevitability. 


Immediately upon arriving in Columbus and completing the new house they became involved with a little West Lowndes church, its activities and its people. They relished game nights and potlucks and picnics. It was a new life and a good life, but it was too brief to suit anyone. 


Today her 92-year-old husband is in a valiant struggle to regain health after a quick succession of surgeries and illnesses; today he appears to be losing his fight. Beside him she stands, still regal but weary. She remains at his bedside day after day and night after night. She will not leave him, not even for a moment. The mail and the newspapers stack up in the mailbox just a short walk from the house, but she will not leave him. Hospice workers, friends, family, ministers encourage her to take that short walk, get out of the house if just for a minute. "I won''t miss his last breath," she says. "I won''t."  


Visitors bring the mail, newspapers and casseroles. They stack up. Her world, for now, has become very small, intense; the intensity of waiting and wanting for something that no one can bring to her door. She sits in the chair beside the bed; she sleeps in the chair, when she can sleep. He moves; she wakens.  


In that twilight place between sleeping and waking she dreams, dreams that he suddenly sits up. "Honey, how about some gumbo?" she''d ask. "I made it with fresh shrimp, shrimp as big as silver dollars." He always had a good appetite, she says. I''m told she was a fine cook. Her meals were fine, like her art. 


Her dream world brings memories of when she and her one and only "courted" and married. They moved, started over again, new places, new people. They settled on the Gulf Coast. They built a home. They reared their children, the children married; the grandchildren came. The grandchildren are beautiful, talented and smart, of course. The grandchildren married, and all the while she painted, simultaneously creating this wonderful living portrait called "family."  


"Where are you?" he calls. "I''m here," she says, "I''m right here." She puts her brush down and moves toward him to be a little bit closer. 


Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie. Her e-mail is [email protected]