Portrait of Billy

My friend Billy, in his mid 70s, had a stroke last summer. It was pretty severe. He went from being an active man, to being dependent on caregivers for practically everything. I’ve known him off and on since I was in my 20s. He’d been a master bricklayer and artist, drawing, painting, and making concrete sculptures with Egyptian mythological themes.

He’d always been a philosophical man, and we often spend hours talking about life. He believed we’re all cells, the planet is a cell, the universe is a cell. He did paintings of the light spectrum that included not just the colors of the rainbow but black, too. He didn’t fear death. He talked a lot about how human unity could be achieved through an understanding of prokaryotic cells, and he was inspired by the work of Bruce Lipton, author of the Biology of Belief. He talked a lot about toxic masculinity and about how to heal racism. He talked a lot. Often to an unnerving extent.

Still, he is a kind man and would help me winterize my apartment and spread sand on my ramp when icy weather was predicted without me having to ask. He built a ramp on his house so people in wheelchairs could visit, but he was a bit of a hoarder, so it was impossible to move around once I got into his house.

He used to visit me to watch science lectures on the computer. He never could quite figure out how to connect to certain sites. Some of what he liked I felt was pretty shaky science-wise, especially things about healing the body through mind power. So while he watched, I sketched him or participants in the lectures.

After he had his stroke, I wanted to give him a mixed media collage I did of him in 2018. I searched and searched for the sketchbook it was in, but I couldn’t find it. I think I got rid of it in my great journal purge this winter. I had a scan of it, but when I tried to print it, it didn’t look “right” to me.

Billy, 10×7, mixed media, December 19, 2018

A mutual friend of ours has been keeping me posted about Billy’s progress. His partner and caregiver has cleared out his house somewhat and has been helping him get better. This last week we were able to visit him. I wanted us to all sing to him (our mutual friend is an excellent singer and I can make a joyful noise, even if I’m off key).

While we were coordinating schedules, transportation, and health considerations, I decided to do another portrait of Billy. I discovered I had very few clear photos of him. I am also out of shape for portraits from not practicing much over the winter. I finally got a couple of nice sketches of him done:

When I started working on canvas, I painted one portrait that was such a disaster I couldn’t bear to look at it, and painted it white the day after I finished it. And I’m glad I did. I changed the composition and decided to add some of his prokaryotic philosophy in the painting. And lots of color.

Billy by Joy Murray, 2022, 8×10″ acrylic and ankh charm (he always wore an ankh necklace on a leather cord

Billy’s motor and communication skills have improved greatly. And though he couldn’t always keep focused or remember song lyrics, we had a blast singing. Both he and his partner really enjoyed themselves, and it was great for all of us to connect through music and art. Part of what happens when you have a stroke or some other physical change is that you get isolated. It’s hard for me to help out because I am limited in buildings I can access, and in mobility. And we’ve all been isolated by COVID. But talking and singing, it rekindles and reconnects thoughts and memories.

When we were leaving Billy’s place, a winter rainy mix had started falling. Billy, without anyone asking, got out the sand and covered the ramp. Then he helped guide my manual wheelchair through the gravelly and cracked driveway. I commented to everyone about “interdependence.” Billy repeated the word and his eyes lit up. Yes! he said, delighting in hearing that word again.

On the drive home, my friend was amazed at how Billy had responded. He said he hadn’t seen Billy that lively since the stroke. People had been putting pressure on Billy’s partner to get him into a nursing home, so she was so pleased to see how much a bit of socializing and music did for us all.

Since Billy’s stroke, I’ve reread Jill Bolte Taylor’s, My Stroke of Insight. She’s a brain scientist who had a major stroke at age 37. Her book about it was published in 2008, and is a great guide for understanding strokes, for how the brain works, and for how to help people who have had strokes. She also talks about the emotional growth she experienced post-stroke. She published a list of what she needed the most after her stroke:

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, and One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman are also great reads for understanding strokes, the brain, and how to accept changes in life.

Art, music and love. They don’t do all the healing, but they help in the process.

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