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Art After Death

By Rebecca Campbell

On January 13, 2012, Josephine Valentine and Andromeda Jane were born at 33 weeks and five days old. Thirty-three weeks isn’t very premature these days in the world of prematurity, so I expected they may spend a month in the NICU and then we would welcome them to our chaotic, happy home. That wasn’t our story.

Both babies were born with respiratory issues. Andi had severe persistent pulmonary hypertension. In the middle of the night she began crashing and an emergency transport team took her to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to try and save her. The nurse’s eyes were too knowing to be a comfort. My husband Todd went with her to stand vigil. I stayed with Josephine. The next day Andi continued to be very unstable and Jo seemed to be strengthening, but I was sure we would all pull through. That wasn’t our story.

Three days after birth, within the span of a few morning hours, Jo’s skin bleached to lead white. She began making unfamiliar noises and I saw in the stretch of her neck and navigation of her eyes she was looking for escape from a body that had turned against her. There had been a mistake that could not be undone. This was the healthy baby…I was allowed to hold her once. My arms were no comfort or cure, and three days after she was born, in a fury of epinephrine, under the weight of the hands of well-intentioned strangers, Josephine died. I told her she was strong enough. I told her she would survive. That was not her story.

I held her as she cooled. I pretended she could feel me. I kissed her neck and told her I was sorry. I was so sorry. That night I left the hospital a brick of grief. The hospital attendant who had twice before packed me and perfect babies into my car to sail home now dropped her secret on me. “No one can know how we feel honey. It ain’t right to leave without your baby. Nothin can make it right.” In the relentless beauty of a Los Angeles sunset, I traced the whole of Wilshire Blvd from the ocean to the ghetto with only a bottle of Xanax and a broken man to carry me. I was leaving my dead baby to sit at the bedside of a baby I was afraid would be close behind.

I didn’t want to see Andi because I knew I would love her, and I didn’t want that love. The responsibility of love was too much for me to hold. I thought it would kill us all. I shuffled into the lobby of the Children’s Hospital pushing my feet, dragging my glued belly passed clusters of other families stricken with their own burden of love. I hid for a few minutes in the elevator until we reached the third floor. Antibacterial hand sanitizer, intercom, double doors, ID check, sign in sheet, antibacterial hand sanitizer, two minutes of scrubbing in too hot water and soap, double doors, 50 yards of terrazzo and strangers, yellow isolation gown, surgical mask, antibacterial hand sanitizer, single door, wall of 30 IV meds, acrylic warming bed, jet ventilator, pulse ox, baby girl, Andromeda Jane, love. What would her story be?

Four months and three days after she was born, I finally took my fragile but perfect baby home. Our lives were far from normal. It took a color-coded spreadsheet to organize her medicine, treatments, and feedings – but eventually thoughts of who I used to be resurfaced. I remembered I’m an artist. The meds disappeared one by one from the spreadsheet and she started to take milk without drama. I’m an artist. The words sounded true but I didn’t know what they meant. I didn’t have any animosity toward art; it just seemed like watching a subtitled foreign film. I had to trust that the words “I’m an artist” were actually what my life was saying.

Caring for a child is so tangible. You see a need and fill it. Hunger needs food. Exhaustion needs rest. Sadness needs comfort. What was the need in the work, to record, to feel, to understand? If I could determine the need, how would I fill it? I decided to reflect on the hardest thing in the simplest possible way. I remembered how Manet said more to me about the beggar with his bits of broken glass and fish skin than with the hole in his shoe. I remembered Zurbaran’s faith in lemons. I remembered how Van Gogh had the courage to look at death.

It’s a simple act to look and paint. There is no cutting edge in sight. It’s what flickers between the edges, burning and warming us both, that the practice has managed to gather. We are all given birth to begin and death to end. This experience is not exclusive or unique. The record painting offers is not either, but we simply have a need to find meaning and have built tools to try and fill it.

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