Medicine Women Tend to Grief

Medicine Women Tend to Grief, a pastel by Stephanie Thomas Berry
Medicine Women Tend to Grief
12 x 16

It’s Sunday and I have to slow down. It’s been go, go, go all week, despite the rain, and it will be go, go, go all next week too. And for a few more weeks after. It’s not the garden that calls me (oh, how I wish), but the studio. I have a show to hang at the end of July and I am behind schedule by a lot. 

My excuse is as good as any. Maybe you heard about it. At the very end of April (just in time for our wedding anniversary) I landed in the hospital after developing an empyema. If you don’t know what an empyema is, don’t worry, I didn’t either, and 99% of non-medical folks don’t. Basically it’s an abscess in the pleural space,  the space in between the two thin membranes surrounding your lungs. I didn’t even know about the pleural space, but holy hell it made me sick. 

I was in the hospital for eight days, first trying to avoid surgery (lung decortication, how lovely), and then recovering from it. My husband and sister barely left my side. Friends brought food, flowers, and sent me messages and videos of the wildflowers and birdsong in the forest. By the sixth day those videos left me weeping with a deep soul-thirst for green, my green, the green of my forest, my home. 

It took a bit to recover. In truth, I’m still not back to the level of activity that I was before, but I don’t know if that’s the tail-end of the recovery process or simply being too busy in the studio to also hike twice a day for a total of 70 minutes (which I did because I have two very large dogs that cannot be taken out and about together. If I did that, and a deer hopped off in the distance, both the deer and I would suffer the consequences). 

I started this piece after my illness. I got the first glimpse of it while I was in the hospital. We are creatures of narrative, and when our bodies fail us, we want to know the story. Sometimes the desire for a story can be satisfied with simple medical knowledge. You caught strep throat from your kid, who got it at the school. You disregarded your diet and developed heart disease. But our bodies are mysterious, wonder-filled cauldrons of life, and sometimes the narrative cannot be grasped in the plain language of science. No one on this earth can tell me why I developed an empyema. It was a lightening bolt out of the blue.

I could tell you part of the narrative, part of the deeper story, in decidedly non-scientific language. The feeling of what my body held and made me sick,. But even I can’t put my finger on this mystery. This image—one day it says one thing to me, and the next day, something else.

I can tell you this, though. The pileated woodpecker is a bird sacred to me, and she appeared in my life before I got sick, as roadkill, still warm and limber and perfect save for the small spot of blood where her neck had clearly broken. I gathered her up and took photograph after photograph—the buttercream down in the creases of her wings, the layered black feathers of her breast, tips dipped in white, her vibrant plume, a red tinged with orange. And I knew then, in that curious way, as if a spirit had whispered it in my ear: everything changes now. 

As if to affirm her sacred work, when I started drawing this piece, she showed up everywhere, for several days. I’d look up from my work, where I was trying to get the curve of her neck just right, and there she would be, for a fleeting moment, claws gripped deep into the soft bark of the sassafras at the edge of my yard. I know it well enough by now––creativity stirs the cauldron of mystery.

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