First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
The Last Day
Chapter 9, Part II (from May 30, 2023)
Sarah, Matisse, and the Immortal Spirit of Art
(Google Large Compositions with Masks, 1953, paper on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
“Sarah,” I ventured, searching for any topic that might in effect sober her up. Then recalling the announcement I had originally planned for class tonight, I practically yelled in Sarah’s nearest ear, “Do you know about Matisse’s cut-out exhibition?”
Sarah instantly pulled away from me, recoiling from the unwelcome volume of my outburst, since, unlike so many of her peers, she was still blessed with normal hearing. “You must tell me everything about it,” she demanded, proceeding to interrogate me with almost deadly seriousness. The exuberance and spontaneity I had just witnessed vanished with the same suddenness and unpredictability as Sarah’s other moods that evening.
“I must go,” she muttered, more to herself than to me, after learning all the details about the exhibition. “I have to see those cut-outs. I know we didn’t see them in class, but didn’t you tell us once that Matisse had done them from his wheelchair when he was ill?”
“That’s right, Sarah,” I marveled at her memory. “Maybe we can arrange for some of the more able people to go to the museum.”
“Then we can go?” she interrupted excitedly, with the fresh, unbounded enthusiasm of a small child about to embark on her first excursion.
“In a few weeks…I think,” I said vaguely, realizing that I’d better check Sarah’s fervor now. Had I spoken prematurely? Alice and I had barely discussed the trip, and I knew she might have difficulty arranging transportation.
“Oh,” Sarah sighed mournfully. She dejectedly averted her face, staring off toward the farthest corner of the Blue Room where the Bruegel always hung, seeking temporary solace, I was certain from her beloved painting.
Well, I berated myself, you’ve really done it. “Look Sarah,” I suggested, trying to reverse any damage I may have unintentionally caused. “Why don’t you go earlier….you don’t have to wait for us. Isn’t there someone you can go with?”
“Yes, there is!” Sarah exclaimed. She revolved carefully around again, looking at me with a combination of euphoria and relief, as if I had single-handedly postponed the ending of the world for her. “I do have a friend that I know would be glad to go with me to see the Matisses,” she affirmed, smiling radiantly, at peace, it appeared, for the first time that evening.
But where was Paul, I wondered? I never wore a watch, yet I knew it had to be at least 15 minutes since he left us.
“I don’t think Paul is coming back,” Sarah offered, matter-of-factly, anticipating my question. She seemed surprisingly indifferent about Paul’s disappearance. “I really think you should go home.”
“Maybe we should wait a little longer, Sarah. Paul might be having trouble. Alice is always telling me how hard it is getting people down from upstairs, especially when the elevators aren’t working correctly.” I speculated, for some reason, generously rationalizing Paul’s tardiness. I had to admit, though that the opportunity to leave early was appealing more to me. Perhaps I could even view a TV special I had expected to miss.
“No, you should go,” Sarah said authoritatively, deciding to assume command. “Let me walk you out,” she directed me, inching herself to a standing position. “I’ll leave a message for Paul at the desk.”
We ambulated slowly down the hall, arm in arm, finally leaving the Blue Room behind us. Sarah struck her cane rhythmically on the now beige carpet, while I regulated my own gait to her shifting motion. An intergenerational ship, actually—Sarah the rudder, I the sail—voyaging onward into the stillness of the nursing home lobby.
I could hear the muffled whir of the elevators as we approached them, swishing and bumping, transporting unseen passengers into the hollow recesses of the institution. Primarily nurses’ aides and orderlies busily migrating between the upper levels, the main floor oddly quiet, emptied already at 7:30.
I reached out to press the up button, when Sarah signaled me toward the stairway leading to the front door, not content to say her farewell tonight at our regular parting point.
“I’ll check with Alice about next week,” I promised as we moved to the bottom of the stairs that I knew Sarah could never ascend. On our right, the pseudo-antique clock chimed the half-hour.
“You do that,” Sarah advised, when we attained our destination. Outside the street was very dark, the lingering sunsets of midsummer long gone. Here, in the entranceway as well, shadows dominated. I could hardly see Sarah’s face, her prominent eyes veiled in the lobby’s dim electric light. I could perceive, however, her fragile palm extending outward, in a gesture unusually formal for us.
“I want to thank you, dear,” she said, shaking my hand with the strength and affection of the Sarah I had always known, “for everything. Now please,” she ordered, “go home!”
Yet as I was running to the top of the stairs, she called out to me from the lobby below. “And by the way, Joan,” I stopped, midway, anxiously awaiting her next words. Was she ill? Should I go back downstairs to her? But then I heard her chuckling, pointing her cane at the clock. “You know, I really hate this thing. It’s such a fake!”
The next week I learned that Sarah had died—only a few days after I had last seen her. Alice had been out of town over the weekend and so hadn’t been able to tell me until the following Monday. I assumed when she telephoned that evening she was finally returning my call about the feasibility of continuing the course.
Instead, Alice was bringing me news of Sarah’s death—and her final day on earth.
“Sarah spent that Friday at the Matisse exhibition with a good friend of hers whose name I forget right this minute,” Alice began, rushing into her story—a breathless monologue she seemed compelled to relay quickly, as if hoping perhaps to escape her own grief. “Sarah told us all about it, all the details. How they spent the entire day at the art museum looking for hours at the cut-outs. She described every one of them to me, and….”
Then her voice broke dramatically, revealing the profundity of her sorrow. “Sarah loved the cut-outs so much, Joan…you don’t know how much all the art meant to her,” she wept, her tears like watery static, crackiling over the phone. “It kept her going all summer…every week she waited for you to come no matter how ill she was. And believe me, the few times she missed, it was because she had such terrible pain!”
Alice was digressing now, wandering away into her memories of Sarah’s suffering. “No one knew how ill Sarah was…what little time she had left…except for myself and the doctors. Not even her family….Sarah didn’t want anyone to know.”
But, almost immediately, she regained both her optimism and composure. “You wouldn’t believe what Sarah and her friend did!” she said, beginning to chuckle, never one to succumb to despair for any length of time. “They went to the museum cafe and actually ordered wine with their lunch…red wine.” She laughed boisterously, her spirits temporarily restored. “Sarah was quite proud of that…and she and her friend had a wonderful meal.”
” ‘This has been one of the best days of my life,’ Sarah told us,” Alice continued, her tone softening with nostalgia and reminiscence, as if recounting an event that occurred in the distant past, rather than barely yesterday. “I had never seen her so happy…and so healthy looking…”
Her next words, though, echoed with the clarity of the present. “But she died that night. In the middle of the night….after she called out to a nurse on duty for help. Suddenly, and with no pain.”
I listened silently as Alice spoke, creating with her descriptions and emotions my own visual images of Sarah’s closing hours. Paintings, really, in my mind. Three panels converging together like a medieval triptych, but new and freshly composed, each one a work of art, with Sarah, inevitably the center.
They passed vividly in front of my consciousness, arranging themselves in chronological order, varying in medium and style. The first was a realist oil, of Sarah and friend at the exhibition itself, surrounded by the museum’s white walls blooming with heart-petaled flowers of the intensest hues—pure red, blue, green, pink. and yellow. Large Composition with Masks hung before them—Matisse’s exciting gift to humanity.
How ironic that Sarah would view it on the same day she departed from life. Vast, monumental in scale, its more than 11-foot-high canvas overwhelmed both spectators. They stretched their necks reverently upward toward the ceiling to a modern Sistine Chapel and a masterpiece in the tradition of Michelangelo.
Second was a pastel, impressionist color predominating over form. Sarah and her friend in the museum cafe, faceless, out of focus, in diffuse, atmospheric light. They toasted one another joyfully, their silvery glasses overflowing with red burgundy wine. The cafe table immaculately white, contrasting with the crisp black uniforms of the waitresses hovering closely. And yet, very near, just a thin wall separating them, the bright multi-colored cut-outs floated and danced, guided by the soul of Matisse, the Riviera, and France.
Finally, the third was an etching, monotone, rendered in the most neutral of grays—fragmented and incomplete. Sarah sitting up in bed, in her lightless room. A pale figure calling softly in the night only seconds before for a nurse never seen. Now eternally frozen in that position—dead but not truly dying. A fragile, colorless statue awaiting the next world.
I had no idea how much these reflections of Sarah’s ending day would haunt me with their poignancy and beauty in the coming years, both inspiring and driving me forward to a goal I would often wish to relinquish. Now, I felt only a numbness when confronted with her death. Or did I already have an inkling of my destiny-to-be? For Sarah’s passing in her tunnel was actually a kind of martyrdom, unintended and unplanned. Not to a country or religion or political cause, but to the spirit of the very art that had once sustained her. And I would be the caretaker of Sarah’s memory and actions, ultimately seeking to justify her sacrifice.
COMING NEXT: THE GREAT MALL
Shortly after Sarah died, a memorial for her was held in one of the chapels of her beloved National Cathedral.
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