Mixed media, 1988–1989
Nan and I thought we were compensatory twins because we had an unspoken agreement assigning each other our own role. Because of our different lives, we felt that she contained the low, dense, earth energies of matter and I contained the light, spiritual energies. We spoke about how we each held what the other lacked. We were each a “keeper” of the missing link to the wholeness that was critical for our existence. It was our safeguard. In that reflection, there was the feeling of security that we experienced with no one else. With our parallel lives we felt special being twins, living the duality of a shared existence. Wherever we were living or how far apart, we shared the similarities and differences of our lives.
Shortly before our forty-ninth birthday Nan called to say she had lung cancer. She spoke in a very matter-of-fact way as if she had been expecting it, because she had. She smoked for thirty years and frequently spoke about someday it would kill her. On one of her own photographs she indicated with a red marker where the cancer would begin. She took out a cancer policy at the same time and wrote a short story called “Smoking as a Metaphor.” All before she was diagnosed.
She was smart, articulate, talented and melancholy. She became more affected by the dark side with its fear and heaviness. Depression became the permanent makeup of her immune system. The underground illness of her soul manifested in her body.
She couldn’t trust herself: “I just played whatever part anybody wanted me to. Everything I did for ‘them’ was bad for me. Every single time I said ‘well, they’ll like this’ I put my life into a turn for a disaster. How I stood for the formalities in the family is definitely here and here and here.” She points to her body.
In one sense I was stunned by the news and in another I was not surprised. She had given me so many clues to prepare me. My reaction mirrored her composure. Because of our relationship I knew something unusual was happening between us, far beyond the cancer – something more than either of us was conscious of at the time.
Within three days of that phone conversation and before my first visit, I was compelled to create a piece of art I named “The Call.” It took on a different tone than anything I had ever made. Using an open seashell, I showed how her lungs might have looked and wrote backwards below the image: She said that she thought of her life as filled with sins against herself. She knew that her body was filled with a disease that would probably kill her, but at least she could now live on her own terms with whatever time she had left. It made her feel powerful.
On the phone, she had spoken so philosophically about her illness, seeing her in the hospital for the first time made me acutely aware of the reality of her situation. She was in pain and she looked scared. I found it difficult to gauge how much to discuss with her and worried about what could be too sensitive or even damaging. I tiptoed around my words and let her take the lead. At some point she said, “We have a lot of work to do.” I didn’t know what that meant but for the next several days I was there to comfort her in any way I could.
When I returned home I created another piece. The need was so intense it gave me a strong
sensation that our conversation was continuing through our energy even though we were not
together. We were getting into each other’s mind and the information had to be given form.
“The Over View” showed heaven and earth with a cross-section of man-made falsehood and
injustice taking place below the horizon. I began to descend into her abyss as I used symbols
that were preordained to exist.
Her daughter became her prime caretaker. Nan was soon out of the hospital and my time
was spent between Philadelphia and Vermont. The Doctor told me she probably had only
three to six months to live. I was shocked but needed to know. She didn’t want to know.
With each visit we talked more openly. I jotted down things she said, often recorded
conversations and I took photographs because I needed to hold onto her the way I could.
From the beginning she didn’t want to fight. She showed a quiet calmness as if she were resigned to her destiny. I saw her resignation to die as an acceptance of her not wanting to live. Life was too difficult. I understood. We made a pact that she would leave the world the same way she came in - with me beside her. That was critical for both of us.
Each visit was followed by intense work on the “Illuminations” which I called them because I was being made aware. “The Underworld” showed the dark side with demons holding all the
malevolence, lies, greed, resentment, fear, anger, and the pain that goes with it. It was a bleak portrayal of life gone wrong. A reminder of what we had done to ourselves. I saw the terror of her
dreams and fear of annihilation in the piece which were also mine and I sympathized with her not wanting to be here.
As her illness progressed the family brought her to their home in Massachusetts. My feelings around her impending death continued to be unusual. During her last few weeks of life, as I listened to her words, muddled by morphine, often very amusing and occasionally with information that was highly lucid. “Take your twin and put it into my twin.” she exclaimed one day. One morning, a week later, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “I came into this world to make your path easier. My work is done. It is going to be magnificent.” I asked her what her name was. She said “Beckynanny” (it was what we called ourselves when we were young). Those were her last words.
She stayed asleep all the next day. In the evening I heard a stir on the intercom from her room and went in. Her eyes were half open with only the whites showing and I knew she was close to death. I got into bed with her the way we planned. As I lay my head on her chest I could feel her breathing getting slower. We remained that way for about twenty minutes and then it stopped. We were beside each other as in the beginning. It was six months from the time she was diagnosed.
I was very surprised by the delivery of the Illuminations after her death. They had a new kind of energy around them and a different atmosphere was released. Her spirit was opposite in nature from what it had been while in her body. Something primordial and palpable was vibrating from the pages revealing information that transcended time and space.
It came from a sense different from my other five senses, making them feel holy. I felt I was
in a state of creative suspension and my inspiration escalated while engulfed in their midst.
One by one, I carefully placed the symbols onto the pages with unwavering faith in what
I was doing. I felt confident, took solace in it, and my curiosity knew no rest as her energy
took me into a different reality.
Finally, as squares turned into circles as a sign of wholeness, I knew that I had finished my task.
In fifteen months, I completed twelve Illuminations which were a blueprint of our past, present
and future in perfect order on a macrocosmic level.
It has been twenty- eight years since Nan died. It has taken that long to decipher what
transpired between us while she was in her body and the interaction we had after death.
It is all imbedded in the Illuminations. By using this blueprint, I created new images revealing
more details of the miracle that I know had taken place. There can be no completion until
consciousness occurs on a cellular level within my body as the microcosm. At that level I am
finding the missing link that was critical for our existence and is critical for mine now. It is at
that level that I ask myself what has to die? What needs to happen in my cells to finally create
completion. For only there, will I be the bridge between heaven and earth and understand
what my twin meant when I saw her in the hospital and she said, “We have a lot of work to do.”
The Call, mixed media, 1988
The Over View, mixed media, 1988
Underworld, mixed media, 1988
The Guide, mixed media, 1989
Transcedence, mixed media, 1989
Becky Young is a visual artist and photographer with a dedicated lifelong art practice.
Before her retirement, Becky worked at the photography department of the University of Pennsylvania as a professor and department director. She resides in Philadelphia where she continues her work of healing through art-making.