My Last Christmas Gift to Clint…

I knew it the minute my eyes spotted the painting on the screen. It was the one! The one painted just for him…for us…for me, as my last gift to give, despite the lateness of the hour or the fact I couldn’t see his eyes light up when he opened it.

It was October 1, 2016. Clint had planned a weekend away for the two of us in Kentucky but kept the itinerary a surprise. Little did I know it was as much a surprise to him as to me, but I was excited nonetheless.

Once arriving, we immediately began searching the internet for what to do in the area. Much to our lament, there actually wasn’t much to do that we found interesting. So, we decided to just jump in the car and drive…anywhere…to see where the road might lead.

Signs directing us to “The Saint James Art Court Festival” began to emerge. We located a far off place to park and meandered our way into the lively scene before us.

Upscale art vendors and the smell of fried foods lined the narrow streets of this historic side of Louisville, known for being one of the oldest subdivisions in the entire country (as told to us by the residents) and boasting some out of this world architecture such as Richardsonian and Romanesque mansions!

Clint and I walked hand in hand, sipping our bubble teas as we passed one grandiose mansion after another and vendors selling all sorts of unique products. As we turned the corner, we sauntered into a small tent featuring one woman’s paintings. I glanced around and turned to leave as it had not really captured my attention or heart. Once outside, I looked back for Clint, who I found still inside and taking his time really looking at each and every painting. After a few more minutes, he motioned for me to return. As I walked back in, I giggled to myself wondering how these paintings had captivated him so, but had quite the opposite effect on me.

His first question to me upon standing by his side was, “which ones do you like the best?”, with a sweet smile on his face. I began scanning them a little more intently, desperately trying to see the same beauty he was seeing, but all I saw was death…everywhere! “Ummm, Babe, I don’t like any of them! You can’t be serious that you actually like these, can you?” He looked at me with such shock! “Are you serious?”, he questioned. “How could you not love these? They are painted so delicately and they look so real!”

He saw such beauty and serenity. I saw nothing but the ugliness of death. It didn’t matter how talented the artist was, which she was, or how lifelike she made things look, which she did, I had huge walls up around my heart, keeping anything death related out.

I’ve never liked death. I was introduced to it at a young age when I lost a most beloved grandmother. I feel things deeply and struggled not living in constant fear of it. Upon becoming a Stephen’s Minister, I had told Clint that I hoped they never paired me with a care receiver who was dying or grieving the loss of a loved one because I hated death and had no desire to get too close to it.

Now, here he was, asking me which of these paintings, picturing the very theme I sought to avoid, I was most fond of. As a side note, Katie painted other things besides deceased animals, but these were the ones Clint was most drawn to.

“None of them”, was my reply as we headed out of the tent, never to be thought of again.

The following fall had arrived and Clint and I were itching to make our way back to the Saint James Court Art Festival but this time we wanted to take the kiddos with us. Our words just didn’t feel we could do it justice! We wanted them to experience it with us.

From the first visit in 2016 to the second on October 7, 2017, Clint would periodically mention the watercolor “paintings of death” (as I had so named them. Sorry Katie 😩), he had so been drawn to under that small white tent.

Sure enough, he could tell we were getting close and made a bee-line for the tent that housed these “peculiar” paintings. So as not to be hurried, he let the kids and I know that we could go hunt down the bubble tea vendor for each of us to have our own. We happily obliged. When we returned, he was still intently viewing the paintings and was now engaged in a conversation with the creator herself, Katie. Again, I entered the tent but this time I really tried to listen to him and understand his love of this artwork. He was so enamored with them that I finally told him he should pick one out and I would find a spot to hang it in the house. But, Clint wasn’t a big spender and he knew I didn’t really like these paintings. So, he was hesitant. I tried to talk him into it but he decided he would think about it some more and seemed content to just leave with the artist, Katie’s, card. Off we went.

Once back home, I put the card in my bathroom vanity drawer, with the intention of maybe surprise ordering him one for Christmas.

Then, November 13, 2017 happened. Death.

I don’t know what the date was when I found Katie’s card again. My eyes routinely fell upon the items in that drawer but one day the card became “visible”. It was like it had been moved to the top and was calling my attention to it. I reached in and picked the card up. Memories of our time together alone and with our kiddos, flooded back to me as I sat there sobbing. Why had I not been more adamant about buying a painting that day? Why had I not done it as soon as we had come home so he could have at least enjoyed it while he was alive?

I cannot recall how many days went by that I passed that card where I had left it lying on my bathroom vanity. But one of those trips past it caused a thought to dawn on me. Maybe it was too late to get him this but I could do it for us. I picked up the card and turned it over to find the website featuring Katie’s paintings. I had remembered one with a pheasant that he really liked because he had raised them as a young boy. I was so hoping maybe, just maybe, it was still for sale. As I scrolled down through the lists of available artwork, I sadly realized it had already been sold. I continued to scan for each piece I had remembered viewing under the tent that day, but all had been sold.

As I continued to scroll, just praying one would stand out to me and I would know it was the one, I saw it!

There on my screen were 2 ducks, a male and female canvas backs. Both had died but the male’s head was tucked under the beak of the female’s, as if to protect him. His eyes were closed but hers were open. When I looked at the painting, what I saw in it were Clint and I. When he died, I felt like I had died too. The painting with the male duck’s eyes being closed and the female’s open, made me feel like we were both gone but I must go on living, just as a very different person than I was before. I saw such love as the two ducks lay there together but also the end of a marriage, a shared life, and of the two people that had coexisted beforehand.

Quickly, I picked up the phone to see if the painting had been sold. I almost felt desperate as I had connected so deeply with this painting that I just “needed” it to be mine!

The gallery informed me it had not been sold and I proceeded to pay for it right then and there! I remember crying as I told them our story and how much this painting meant to me personally and to please make sure nothing happened to it.

Several weeks later, just a few days after Christmas, the painting arrived! I already had a spot in the house ready for it to be lovingly displayed!

I wept as I opened the box and pulled out the most beloved painting. My heart ached as I so wished Clint could be there to open it with me and hang it on the wall himself. Lord knows, Clint hated when I hung a picture. There would be at least 5 holes where only 1 should be.

Katie had enclosed a card to go with the painting. With shaky hands and blurry eyes, I opened it and began reading. I was completely unprepared to read what she had so sweetly written!

She informed me that she had titled the painting “Beginning, Middle, and End”. She proceeded to tell me how her heart really hurt for me when the gallery told her about my story. She had lost her dad just that September and he had in fact been very sick and passed right before the 2017 Saint James show that we had attended. Over the course of her father’s sickness, she had painted many things as she was dealing with her emotions. The one I had picked out, had very much been about her father and her parent’s marriage. She went on to tell me how she laid them in a very “intimate pose and surrounded them with flowers from the edge of her yard”. She wrote, “it was like putting something to bed for the night, the good and the bad”. My eyes were almost too filled with tears to even read after that line! That was EXACTLY what I had interpreted the painting to mean!

Katie had cancelled one show that she was booked to do but decided to do the 2017 Saint James show after her father’s passing. After reading that, it dawned on me that Clint and I almost didn’t see her that second time. Had we not seen her, we might not have remembered her or where to find her. I for sure would not have remembered anything about the paintings. And, I would have missed out on the “one” I was meant to have that reminds me of those trips, his love of art, Katie’s work, and most of all…us…our marriage of almost 24 years.

Losing Clint felt as if a veil was torn in my life, so to speak. I am no longer afraid of death or dying. My life’s call now is to sit with the grieving and walk with those that have lost so much…even though it hurts to keep going back over and over again. Katie’s paintings have become dear to me as well, as I’ve been able to embrace all of life, including death. I don’t see them as dark or morbid anymore. And she is so unbelievably talented!! She also paints many other beautiful things…not just animals that have died. Pain is something we so often avoid but there’s beauty to be had, if we will just look. I’m so thankful I’ve loved so deeply to feel the loss to this degree. I think that’s why I’ve always hated death so much. I love with all I have and know that death will hurt…with all I have.

I’m so very thankful for this last Christmas gift Jesus allowed me to get for “us”. I’m thankful for the strength it gives me every time I look at it and see the female’s eyes still open, still keeping watch but with new eyes, still remembering the “Beginning, Middle, and End” and still living life to the best of my ability!

Merry Christmas to all my family and friends, far and near! Don’t let this Christmas pass you by without taking time to reflect and love on those God has given you!! Time is short, people are precious, and there are miracles literally all around us if we are just willing to pay attention!

~Michelle ❤️

Here is Katie Musolf’s website where you can view more of her lovely artwork. She is so gifted and captures life and death in a way that is breathtaking! Thank you, Katie, for taking the time to not only share your story and the back story of the painting with me, but for our ongoing communications and for the permission to tell both of our stories! I wish you a very blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!

And, here is a link to the art show I’ve raved about! I highly recommend it!

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