“Come on, Carlen,” Martha said. “Let’s get out there now!” My wife was anxious to see two of her paintings on exhibit in an art show on St. Pete Beach.
Martha scurried straight to her paintings when we walked through the door that Friday.
One of the pictures that Martha exhibited, a self-portrait. It hangs in our living room, where I’ve seen it thousands of times.
“Look, here they are,” she said, grabbing my hand. You’d think there were no other paintings in this show, I thought as I smiled. She beamed as she looked at them and then she showed me their price tags: $200 each. We returned Sunday afternoon to see if the paintings had sold. They had not, but that didn’t matter.
Eighteen months earlier, Martha had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My wife was a confident woman. She’d served on the St. Petersburg City Council, run for the Florida Legislature and was active in other civic and political affairs—all while being the mother of three.
But after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Martha’s confidence plunged to a depth I hadn’t seen. That was September 1997, just three weeks after she turned 50.
As Martha’s despondency dropped to a low ebb, our sister-in-law KK encouraged Martha to take a watercolor class together. This should be interesting, I remember thinking. She had never shown an interest in quiet hobbies like art. Martha liked action—dancing, tennis, singing, hiking and talking smack.
So I was surprised – stunned, really – when Martha said yes to taking the class. I think she agreed because she loved KK, and anyone who knew KK knew she could be persuasive. They started going to a watercolor class once a week at the St. Petersburg Art Center.
Her teacher Judi would hand Martha a sketch to paint, and Martha began to do so with such a complexity and boldness of color that reflected a dimension I had never seen in her before. I had no idea where that came from.
Neither did Judi, who pulled me aside one day. “Carlen, this can’t be taught,” she said of Martha’s use of color.
Martha painted scores of pictures large and small—turtles and fish in an orange-and-green sea; a multi-colored zebra; a blue-faced hippo walking atop an orange-and-yellow rainbow. You can see these and other paintings here.
What a delight to see this talent unfold out of a dark and scary place. Most of all, it was a joy to see Martha’s confidence surge.
As much as I enjoyed Martha’s artwork, I enjoyed hearing her talk about each piece even more, and seeing the glow in her face when she completed one. The lethargy so common with Alzheimer’s just melted away.
I remember Martha talking on the phone with our daughter Rachel, who was away at college. She was describing the art show, and was so excited and fluent. What a change.
And then, as quickly and quietly as they had emerged, after two years or so of painting, Martha’s desire and talent evaporated away. If it were only possible to bottle this confidence, I thought, as Martha’s mind slipped away to an unknown place.
A friend once told me to look for the little things that emerge and to be thankful for them. That was good advice, but it sure is hard to follow when you’re deep in a crisis like Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, the memories of those two years of Martha and her art are warmly engraved in my heart.
About the Author: Carlen Maddux wrote a book about his family’s 17-year journey through Alzheimer’s. Just released, it’s titled: A Path Revealed: How Hope, Love, and Joy Found Us Deep in a Maze Called Alzheimer’s. Carlen also launched a blog in September 2015, which can be found at www.carlenmaddux.com.