DUMMERSTON — I'm sitting at my computer and watching in rotation Maggie Lake's eight stunning giclée botanical prints (on archival paper) that the Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts Gallery has posted on its website.
On Jan. 8, I was at the opening of the show, “Gone to Seed.” Now that Maggie has died at the young age of 60, I finally get it.
The flowers, leaves, and berries that Maggie chose for this series - the last in her 30 years of hiking woods both familiar and foreign, collecting her “ephemeral flora,” then working in her studio to compose the botanicals into perfectly balanced, delicate works of art - are dried and frayed.
The leaves have holes in them. They are wrinkled. They are torn. The pampas grass bends and bows to the wind. The delicate purple poppies are faded and wavering. The sea oats, like Maggie at the end, are longing to leave the page.
In her artist's statement, Maggie wrote:
“In the late fall of this year I hiked the familiar woods trails where every spring for the past 30 years I have collected Vermont's ephemeral flora.
“The transformation of the plants was so dramatic, from tiny shapes of starry pale flowers and their newborn leaves clasped tightly around their stems to ungainly bug-eaten golden leaves bearing red and blue fruits, oozing their seed and juices into the soil and decaying leaf matter.
“What a metaphor for life, for my life, as I struggle with terminal cancer, birth, death, and rebirth.”
* * *
Maggie was a rare botanical herself, beautiful and filled with light. She was also my doctor. (She was a nurse practitioner, really, but I always thought of her as my doctor and I'm writing this piece, so the hell with it.)
She was a brilliant diagnostician. The sensitivity and creativity that she brought to her art was also present in the treatment room.
I would describe to her whatever weird collection of symptoms my aging body had put together to torment me during that particular week, and she would listen, with those huge dark eyes of hers fixed on mine as if she was sending her energy through them into my body and listening to what it had to say for itself. Then she would return and let the energy explain to her diagnostician's brain what was going on with me.
That done, she'd snap to attention as if she had just woken up, nod, and tell me what to do to make myself well again. Then we'd talk about her cancer or her art or my latest piece of writing or the deteriorating state of modern medicine - really, our favorite topic.
It was as if conversation was the reason we were together, not my cockamamie symptoms.
Then, sadly, the session would have to end because there were always other patients who needed her. I always had a sense of loss when I left her. I can't imagine how her friends and family are feeling now.
I'd go on my way, I'd do exactly what Maggie told me to do, and the symptoms would always disappear.
“She practiced medicine the way it was supposed to be practiced,” her sister Joanne told me at the gallery opening.
* * *
The gallery, by the way, was packed that night. It was filled with Maggie's friends and family.
Petria Mitchell, the Mitchell in Mitchell-Giddings, told me that Maggie had come - by wheelchair - the night before. She had been able to see her beautiful, heartbreaking work framed and hanging with distinction and professionalism on the walls of this beautiful gallery. I hope she was pleased.
A friend of Maggie's, Sally, was taking voice messages for her on her tablet. I told her that her work was beautiful. My husband said he was happy that Maggie had been able to see her work so well displayed.
We asked Sally how Maggie was doing.
“Inside that sad body, she's absolutely still there,” Sally said.
I talked to others at the gallery about Maggie.
“She was awesome,” said Walter Slowinski, another gifted artist-doctor who practiced with Maggie for a while. “She was loved by her patients. She gave her heart to that and to her art. She got sick and came back twice. She lived twice as long as usual as someone with her diagnosis would.”
The diagnosis was mantle cell lymphoma. She endured all the usual debilitating treatments, including two agonizing stem-cell transplants. The first one brought her back to us. About the second one, she waffled. Did she want to endure all that pain again? she asked.
She finally decided to go for it - with cells donated by one of her sisters - and she got another happy year of art.
And then CaringBridge became our lifeline. If you have not personally experienced the mixed blessing and sadness that is CaringBridge, know that it is a nonprofit website through which people who are ill or dying can post and receive messages.
Its mission is “To amplify the love, hope, and compassion in the world, making each health journey easier.” Basically, it keeps those endless phone calls from caring and concerned friends under control and lets those who are ill speak to their community in the world. Maggie had been using it to post updates on her illness for many years.
When she could no longer post, her great love, Oliver, posted for her.
Last I looked, Maggie's site had received 42,263 visits, and 55 people had made tribute donations in Maggie's honor. That's a lot of people. She touched a lot of lives.
In the comments, they talk about her “uninhibited laughter,” her “screwball dancing,” her “amazing presence,” her “bright light,” her “magical way,” her “boundless energy,” and “her beautiful life.”
This came from Oliver through CaringBridge on Jan. 16:
“Maggie died at 1 a.m. today surrounded by her family. She went peacefully, after taking a lethal combination of drugs, prescribed for her under provisions of Act 39 of the State of Vermont, the so-called Death With Dignity Act.
“After a long period of great struggle, of diminishing health, and greater and greater difficulty with breathing, she made the courageous decision to take these drugs, and advance the natural process and shorten her suffering.
“We are so grateful to her for her spirit, her art, and for her love. We will miss her so very much. Goodbye, my darling Maggie.”
Maggie, it was an honor.