Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Gift

Monday started early.
She was awakened by a hungry cat, who figured 5 a.m. was a good time for the first meal of the day, while I was, soon after, disturbed by an overwhelming essence of cat-food breath when the same striped beast felt a nose-to-nose post-breakfast nap on my chest was in order.
"Since we're up so early, why don't we do something?" I said. "Like maybe head for Chicago and go to the Art Institute."
Acting quickly, I snapped off the back of my cell phone, fiddled with the wiring and converted the simple communications devise into a powerful portable defibrillator to restart her heart.
Well, not exactly, but she really was pretty startled by my suggestion.
"Who are you and what have you done to my husband?" she said in amused amazement.
It's not that I don't like to go places and do things, but my usual day-trip ideas are generally somewhat less sophisticated than what I was proposing. Usually, I'm more apt to suggest something like a look at the world's largest statue of a jackrabbit.
Or a pie-eating contest.
Or both.
But before you start thinking that a visit by the two of us to the big-time world of art would somehow resemble an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies where Jed and Miss Hathaway visit the Louvre, let me just say this:
I belong.
Now, I realize that for those of you who know me, discovering that I'm an actual member of the Art Institute of Chicago might be kind of like finding out that Bozo the Clown just joined your Mensa group. Even my pals at the Galva Arts Council tend to bypass me when the topic turns from folk music and coffeehouse snacks to the visual arts.
But really.
It's true.
I am, indeed, a card-carrying member of one of the best-respected art museums in the world.
Before you start wondering if pigs are about to take to the air or if the temperatures in hell are dipping below 32 degrees, let me explain.
It all started one Christmas morning, when my late mother-in-law gave me an unexpected gift. Other than our shared interest in her daughter and her grandsons, we didn't have a lot in common. She was a highly educated Phi Beta Kappa, with advanced degrees in foreign language, and keen interests in politics, classical music and fine art. I, on the other hand, made the Galva High School honor role a total of one time, spoke only Pig Latin, never knew who I should vote for, and listed John Lennon as my favorite composer and Charles Shulz as tops among American artists.
So, I was surprised that she gave me a membership to the museum.
"What's up with this?" I wondered. "Is she trying to smarten me up?"
But while that might have been a good idea on her part, that wasn't it.
I was, at the time, making almost weekly trips to Northwestern Memorial Hospital on the north side of Chicago, where the good doctors in the oncology department were trying to figure out a baffling set of symptoms and conditions related to the ongoing cancer I was battling. I didn't feel good enough to make the drive every week, and I was going far too often for it to be possible for my wife or sons to take me, so I got into the habit of riding the train to Chicago, then hopping a bus to the hospital. It all worked out pretty well, except I didn't have a place where I could hang out, rest and wait before and after appointments.
So that's what she gave me.
For awhile, I didn't go far beyond the cafeteria and members' lounge, but eventually, I began to wander the halls and galleries that contain some of the most revered art in the world. And while any schmuck (like me) knows names like Picasso and Van Gogh, I soon added others to my list of "gota-see" faves. The place is, indeed, timeless, not only because of the years and years worth of astonishing work displayed, but also because it is so far away from the fast-paced world just outside its doors.
Barb passed away several years ago, but I've continued to renew my membership. Partly because it gives us a reason to go once in awhile, and partly just as a way to remember her.
Because, here's the thing: when you're dealing with cancer or any serious disease or condition, a lot of people say, "Let me know what I can do."
But in most cases, there isn't much, other than encouragement, prayers and the occasional favor or errand.
But she thought of something.
She gave me a place to rest. A place to think about something other than my own sorry situation. And a place to wonder and look and learn and enjoy a little bit of life that was far, far away from doctors and hospitals and tests and the not-so-succesful surgeries and scary prognoses that were darkening my days at the time.
So, here we were, taking a break in the museum lounge on Monday afternoon. We had just finished traipsing through the new modern wing and were anticipating a quick visit to a new exhibit and some old favorites before we headed for home.
I thought about all the things we'd seen and the great day it had been.
And I thought, as I always do when I'm there, of my mother-in-law and the priceless gift she gave me.


  1. Charlene JohnsonApril 1, 2011 at 3:16 AM

    I can relate, John. My husband and I spent some quality time at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in K.C. during his illness. It was a needed escape for him, and left me with lovely memories amid a difficult time. What a wise mother-in-law, indeed.

  2. What a wonderful gift from you m-i-l, and what a great way you've taken advantage of it.