Remembering an artist devoted to living and dying well
My friend Lili Artel died several years ago at age 95. Well into her nineties, Lili continued to do art. Weeks before her death, she was still writing poetry.
Lili had come to these passions in her fifties, having felt stifled by societal expectations for decades. Once she stepped away from those expectations and towards her creative impulses, she did not turn back. She published numerous books of poetry and memoir, and was a prolific artist, working mainly in fabric and found materials.
Wrestling with death and dying
Lili had a fighting spirit. She was dedicated to truth-telling, and was a fierce lifelong advocate for social justice. She was often cantankerous and difficult for others to deal with, and for the most part she didn’t mind this. In fact, I’d say she was proud of it, believing as she did in the importance of being heard and standing up for herself. In her later years, she devoted a good deal of her abundant mental and creative energy to advocacy for the dignity of elders, and the right for herself and others to be treated according to their wishes at the end of their lives. Autonomy was a primary value for her, and all the more so as she aged. She was determined to have things her way, and was always ready to say so when that didn’t happen. In her final book of poems, published the year she died, she wrote:
“Angel of Death, I’m not quite ready.
I’ve got some gratitude and attitude
To work on, a long poem to write
And three pieces of art I’ve started
And would like to finish.
Angel of Death, don’t bother to phone
Or send me an E-xtra-terrestrial mail.
If and when I’m ready, I’ll call you.
Should you be busy elsewhere,
I’ll leave a message on your voicemail.”
Aging, dying, and the illusion of control
By the time Lili moved into her final weeks and days, things had shifted. She was no longer arguing with Death to leave her alone. She was ready to let go, having taken on the task of doing so with the same self-determined ferocity with which she did everything else. She was no longer eating – purposefully as I recall – and was increasingly frail. She wanted more than anything to “die well”, which for her meant to have her dying process be in her control. And she was able to have many things she wanted during that time – music, loved ones visiting, poetry around her. But Death did not operate on her preferred schedule. She would wake up in the assisted care facility where she was living and ask plaintively, “Why am I still alive? I don’t understand.”
Where she lived was another thing Lili hadn’t been able to control at the end of her life. For her physical safety, her daughters had insisted on her moving to an assisted living facility. She befriended some of the staff there, the ones that seemed interested in her as a person. She was especially fond of a young attendant who wrote poetry. But she complained mightily about how little privacy she had, and how people often treated her like a child, or ignored her individuality, when going about their jobs. In the opening poem of her final book, Lili let loose her anguish and anger at not being taken seriously at age 94, and with not being seen as an individual by helping professionals and other well-meaning people.
“I want to stand on a street corner,
A scream that starts in the belly;
A primal scream!
I'm 94 and need some physical help.
don't assume you're baby-sitting a little old lady
because I've got my mental energy.
What I call my marbles and I want to play them.”
Playing your marbles & leaving them on the table
Lili’s marbles remained in play until just hours before her death. In between periods of sleep, she would interact with those around her, more quietly than she would have at most other times, but with as much mental clarity as she could muster, which was an impressive amount under the circumstances and given her significant level of physical frailty. She reconciled with loved ones, took in poetry being read to her, listened to quiet music. And while she may have woken up the day of her death wondering why she was still alive, by the time she took her last breath, she was more peaceful than those around her had ever seen her. She had done what she needed to do. It was time to turn in a new direction. Luckily for us, she left some of her marbles on the table through the poems and art work she left behind.
A poem for the poet
As we say in Judaism, zikhronah li-vrakha, may her memory be for a blessing. The poem below is for Lili. May her fighting spirit and inquisitive mind continue to grace our lives.
Blessing for the Cantankerous Poet in the Public Square
Blessed are the prophets
who drive us in spite of ourselves
toward a better world.
May we cry out in the wilderness
and know that we are heard.
Blessed are the poets
who write with brutal honesty
about the “ahhh’s,”
and the “ugh’s” of life.
May we be enriched by their words
as by bitter waters and rich minerals,
sweet seaweed and salty infusions.
May we hear in them the love and longing
for a future we can’t yet reach.
Blessed are the women
and all those who stretch and strain
and insist on being heard above the din
of a world deaf to the hungry wails
of unfulfilled lives, or fulfilled ones
threatened with invisibility,
those who yell, and scream, and moan,
and cry, and laugh, and sing,
who tear down outmoded structures
and create art of objects found in the rubble.
May we never construct false idols,
may we respect the past enough to learn from it,
may we learn from the lessons of elders,
may we never stop learning.
Baruch atah YaH, eloheynu ruach ha-olam,
Blessed are You, Spirit-Breath of All Life,
that holds the prophets with tenderness
and the poets with honor.
©Shifrah Tobacman, 2013
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