By Sarah Johnson
Morris Louis lived from 1912 to 1962, a life that spanned two World Wars, a war on drugs, a war on love, a war on fruitcake, and a war on the abstract expressionists. Morris Louis painted in drips, thinning his paint and letting it run in rivulets down the canvas, pooling into a muddy brown on the drop cloth. It can have the effect of looking accidental. He is generally considered to be in the school of My Child Could Paint That.
My mother collects rocks from the sea and brings them into her home. She pockets the ones that are even and round, weathered by salt until their edges blur. At home, my mother paints them into spirals and mandalas, designs that radiate outward from a fixed center. She sets up her lamp and pulls out her tiny brushes and begins her process of meticulation and control.
When the red-eared slider senses that it has become endangered, it will brumate. This is, essentially, playing dead to avoid becoming actually dead. The cold-blooded animal drops its body temperature and hunkers into itself, retracting limbs and slowing its heartbeat. It is the most common pet turtle, spending days half above water, clinging to semi-plastic rocks in childhood bedrooms.
My mother was born in 1957, at the very beginning of the war on fruitcake. We sat together at a Thai restaurant as she told me about the lump in her breast. Since then phrases like “exploratory surgery” and “tofu pad thai” have occupied the same corner of my brain.
The arctic fox is shaped such that it conserves heat most effectively, with a small, round body and short legs. It eludes freezing by centralizing warmth under its dense fur, the color of which ensures its safety by camouflage. It hides to avoid becoming actually dead.
My mother mixes colors that reflect the sea and the conifers. She creates dusky hues with a pool of added grey to her palette. She perfects pointillism and squints through reading glasses, always touching up and revising but rarely satisfied. My mother shows me her favorite one, painted to look like a humpback whale.
The red-eared slider is native to almost nowhere. It has been transferred through domesticity to nearly every corner of the globe. It is one of Australia’s worst invasive species.
They removed my mother’s invasive cluster twice but not actually to completion. “Clear margins” sits next to “completing my thesis” somewhere behind my left temple. They cut her open a third time.
Several species of lizards are autotomous, meaning they can detach body parts at will under extreme stress or to evade capture, and regrow them later. The African spiny mouse is capable of detaching its skin and regrowing tissues, follicles, and cartilage with no discernible scarring. Scientists are now studying how to implement the mice’s regenerative genes in human beings.
In the absence of regeneration, the next best bet is reconstruction. Reconstruction of tissue, of normalcy, of routine. As lifelike as all the parts seem, there are pieces of my mother that are not native to her body. She houses herself in a skin she is still becoming acquainted with.
“Chemotherapy,” “recurrence,” and “untimely death” live in the category of Things My Mother Has Never Had to Experience. Instead, her name swims in my brain with “luck,” “strength,” and “routine follow-up visit.”
Morris Louis developed lung cancer from prolonged exposure to paint fumes. He died surrounded by his friends and family.
Copyright Johnson 2018