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Van Gogh’s cherry blossoms

It’s been a summer of tossing and turning through the night; I know these times of extended insomnia as the shifting of internal tectonic plates. A grandson who has overwhelmed me with love, a mother’s slow and painful fade, termites eating their way through the bedroom, my own work in confusing stasis … no wonder I have put a call through to my old shrink, to see if she’ll talk to me sometime in September. A great blessing to have someone on planet Earth who knows me so well and has such a soothing voice.

But in the middle of all this, there’s one memory that will keep me warm forever. Last month I booked a timed ticket for the blockbuster Van Gogh exhibit at Ottawa’s National Gallery for 10.30 Monday morning, after seeing that the bus from Montreal got in to the Ottawa terminal at 10.20, so I’d dash over in a cab. I told my brother that if he bought Mum a ticket for the same time and she was up for it, I’d be happy to take her through; she has often talked about seeing this exhibit, even as she lay in a hospital bed.

On the weekend, my brother mentioned it to her and, frail as she is, she leapt at the chance. But he had not bought her a ticket, and this was the last week the show would be on, hence packed. Oh well, he said, she’s a senior and a member of the gallery, we’ll get her in somehow. More difficult, however, was the issue of when exactly I’d get there from Montreal, and when he’d manage to get to her place and then downtown. How to coordinate? We discussed general plans and left the rest to the gods.

Who were with us on this one – it went like a commando raid. I realized that the bus stopped first at the U of O downtown, got off there and hoofed it across the Byward Market to the gallery by exactly 10.30, where sure enough there was a massive crowd in the line for tickets that were not pre-booked. I stood in the much shorter pre-booked line, intending to beg for Mum when I got to the ticket seller, when out the window I see my brother’s Volvo pull in, and there, staggering into the gallery, was my mother. Just as I made it to the head of the line, she hobbled up beside me, and when the woman saw my lovely old mum, whose membership expired last year and who had no ticket, she sold me one. So the two of us whisked past the hundreds, straight into Van Gogh.

Well, whisked is not the word – I was pushing her in her walker. But we went straight in. And it was glorious. The first room was worth it all, let alone the rest – they’d blown up a canvas to massive height filling three walls, so you could see, huge, his slashes and dabs and globs of paint – the brilliance and courage, the struggle. Room after room of beauty – this time, for both Mum and me, it was his white branches of cherry blossom on a greeny-blue background, painted in celebration of his nephew’s birth, that brought tears. What a soul. I couldn’t help but think of Picasso, the blockbuster I saw last month in Toronto. No comparison, for me – Picasso brilliant, no question, and brave too, but without a quarter of the humanity of the simplest Van Gogh canvas.

Most thrilling of all, to be there with Mum, whom we thought we’d lost several times already this year. She loved it all, though by the end was drifting off – so we revived with lunch in the cafeteria atrium. A cab home and a long nap for her, while I watched her sleep. A tribute to my brother, who told me that when he ran in to hustle her off to the gallery, she was sitting in her underwear. He got her dressed and there, so that we could weep, together, in front of the cherry blossoms. Never to be forgotten.

My last day here – so much to be done, her bills, her finances in chaos, huge decisions to be made about the future. My brother’s coming to the residence and we’re all having lunch together, and then I’ll spend the rest of the day until my flight with her. Each moment to be cherished.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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