Our Studio

Beth and I are both watermedia painters. Here you can see our work and read about our art-making processes.

Feb 132014
 

The paperback version of Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled

The paperback version of Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled

Rolling Back has been published in paperback and is available on Amazon for $6.99 ($6.64 for Amazon Prime members). There is also the Kindle version that costs $2.99. I have provided links to each of them below.

Writing and publishing Rolling Back as been a personally rewarding experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Several people have urged me to write another, and I will probably try. However I think I’m ready for a change of pace and may attempt a fiction novel next. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Paperback:

Kindle:

Feb 042014
 

This is the cover for my new book. The art is a slightly modified version of one of my late wife's paintings.

This is the cover for my new book. The art is a slightly modified version of one of my late wife’s paintings.

My book, Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled, has been published and is available as a Kindle version on Amazon. You don’t need a Kindle to read it, you can read it on any computer or any tablet for smart phone using the free Kindle app. Kindle owners who are Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free.

Rolling Back will be available as a paperback in a few weeks. Right now it is only in the Kindle format, but will be expanded to include other e-readers in three months. The price for the Kindle version is just $2.99. If cost is an issue I hope to be able to offer it free for five days on Amazon. When that happens, I will let everyone know.

Nov 092012
 

BethTimeLine30x20sm

A visual snapshot of Beth's life.

The first time I held Beth’s hand, she looked into my eyes and my heart was stolen. The last time I held Beth’s hand, she closed her eyes and my heart was broken. But the glorious years in between have been more than worth the agony I am feeling now.

The places we went, the love we shared, the friends we made, the children we raised …

Our favorite things to do together were traveling and throwing parties. I always suspected that both were just excuses for a new wardrobe, but as beautiful as she was who could possibly say no?

We would travel by car usually. I liked to drive and she liked to sleep. Once in a while she would wake up long enough to see something along the way. When we returned, Beth would take those visual memories and turn them into incredible works of art. One was Maui jungle, where she managed to distill a week of driving around the island onto a 2″ x 3″ piece of zinc. That image won major awards and the edition of prints sold out.

When I was forced to retire due to my disability, I took up painting as well and we enjoyed our trips even more. We would come home to our studio and commit memories to paint and paper. This was a very happy time. But then I became even more disabled to the point where we could no longer be away from home at night. Beth began losing her eyesight and was diagnosed with her own physically disabling disease.

For a while, we continued to paint, drawing upon the memories of previous journeys. But for the past 2 years, painting simply stopped. Beth couldn’t see well enough and I couldn’t move my hands well enough and the focus of our lives turned to helping each other get by.

And now Beth is gone. But she is still helping me get by. Because she has left me with a lifetime of beautiful memories.

Her loss gives me great pain, but it is a small price to pay for the richness that she has left behind. Beth, I will always love you and I will forever thank you, for having been my wife.

Oct 142012
 

Beth at Art Reception

Beth at an art reception last year.

Three nights ago I got those terrible phone calls. The first was from my wife’s new assisted-living facility. She was being rushed to the hospital. The second call was from my daughter who was on her way to meet the ambulance and said she would send her husband to get me. When I got inside the emergency room my daughter met me and said “brace yourself, it’s very bad”. Beth, my wife of 38 years was lying on the bed, a ventilation mask over her face, her chest heaving in response to the high amount of pressure they were using to force air and oxygen into her lungs. My daughter explained that without that she could not survive. Although my wife had a Do Not Resuscitate order, my daughter made the decision to allow them to take this extra step to keep her alive until I could be at her bedside and to give us time to bring our two daughters down from Orange County.

So we talked with her as her body struggled. She managed one-syllable answers and at one point opened her eyes and squeezed my hand. Then our daughters arrived and we gathered around and told Beth how much we loved her (although there really were no words that could possibly say how very much that was).

Beth on the beach with our daughters.

Each summer Beth and our daughters would stay at the beach in La Jolla for a couple of glorious weeks.


The doctor gave her pain killer and a sedative, then removed the mask. We held Beth and continued to talk with her as she struggled to breathe on her own. All too soon, she took her last breath and I felt her fingers relax their hold on mine. My wife, my soulmate, the mother of our children, was gone.

As I write this, there is no way to describe the agony. If I could, I would change places with her in an instant, but I can’t. Somehow I have to make sense of a life that doesn’t include Beth and try to use the time I have left to continue to write and help the world know more about the wonderful woman it has lost.

Spring Ahead Watermedia Painting by Beth Shirk

One of Beth's last works of art, Spring Ahead won many awards and now hangs in my room.

Sep 282012
 

Beth on cousin's deck in Englewood, FLA

Beth on the deck of my cousin's apartment on the Gulf coast of Florida, about 39 years ago.

Forty years ago, when Beth and I met, we fell so hopelessly in love we were willing to uproot both of our lives so that we could spend the rest of our years together. We were inseparable, holding hands wherever we went, even on our way to the laundromat where we would sit together and watch our clothes dry. We had two beautiful daughters, now with families of their own. I learned to share her love for art, and we began our retirement intending to spend the rest of our lives painting together. When I became disabled 15 years ago, she helped me cope. Then she became disabled a few years later, as though we needed to share that too.

For the past year or so, Beth has been leaving me. Not out the door or to the arms of another, much farther than that. Her brain is taking her slowly but certainly to a place that I can not visit nor even comprehend. And now this terrible illness, yet to be named despite two weeks of trying by a team of UCSD doctors and psychiatrists, has progressed to the point that the unthinkable is happening. In order for her to receive the kind of care she needs and deserves, she must move to a special facility, and there is no place for me. I can visit as often as I wish, and I will. But when I return to my room, with its ceiling lifts and hospital bed and accessible fixtures, there will be no soft greeting to make this austere environment feel like home. Even worse is knowing that she will also be alone without the hope that I might rescue her from the tigers and lions, snakes and assassins and all the other evil images that come stalking as the light fades. I hope this new place, and new medicine, will make them go away. But even so, I know that the illness has also taken her ability to understand the reasons we are apart. Beth will only know that I am not there, and wonder why the person who once happily spent hours helping her pick curtain fabric has vanished into the murky night.

Aug 042012
 

Note: At the time this series of articles was written, my wife Beth was still with us. She died October 11, 2012.

There is downsizing, and then there is moving to assisted living. Downsizing presents difficult choices of what to keep and what to take with you. Moving to assisted living presents impossible choices.

One way we managed to deal with it was to simply not make many of the decisions. Instead we had our daughters go through our stuff and make a lot of the choices for us, without us being present. Did we agree with every choice? Of course not. But it at least it let us whittle things down to a manageable size.

Another way to approach it is to choose between what you really need and what you think you simply can’t live without. In my case, since I knew I was going to continue to do work in the website design and graphics arts field, I definitely had to take all of my computer gear and cameras. Plus my manuals on software and programming. Beth wanted all of her art supplies, of course.

How do you downsize this?

How do you downsize this?

Clothing was also easier for me, since I really can’t wear standard clothes anymore. I just needed to bring along half a dozen of my specially constructed pants, and a dozen or so shirts. Plus some jackets.

Beth wanted to bring enough to fill several closets so we compromised by storing winter clothes off site and bringing all of her summer clothes. Then we will have to make the switch in the fall and hope we guess right on the weather. I also gave her half of my closet for coats.

Then there are the keepsakes. How could we possibly get rid of any of the vases that people had given us over the years? Well we had to, and every few days we will remember one that would’ve been just perfect for a particular location or occasion. The other really big issue was Christmas decorations. We have been allowed to store some here underneath the facility in their basement, but that still begs the question of what we will do with them come holidays. Perhaps we will be able to use some in a common area here at Huntington Manor.

It’s my belief that the key to this whole process is to try your best to live in the present. Every time we start thinking about things we left behind it becomes difficult. But in truth, nothing we left behind is needed for our daily lives. And the real memories aren’t stored in vases or garment bags. They are in the mind.

Which reminds me to return to working on my first book, “The Society of the Creek.” It is a book about childhood, written for an adult audience. I plan to post some excerpts here.

Index for this series of articles about assisted living.

Introductory article plus updates.

Is it time for assisted living?

Making the decision to move to assisted living, emotionally, practically and financially.

How we chose the facility we did.

Deciding what to take, what to leave, how to adjust our expectations.

What life in assisted living has been like.

How can we make assisted living better for the physically disabled?

Jun 112012
 

Note: At the time this series of articles was written, my wife Beth was still with us. She died October 11, 2012.

Ceiling Lift installed in my room at Huntington Manor

The owner of Huntington Manor was willing to have my ceiling lift installed.

Once we decided we needed assisted living, there was another choice to make — which facility. We knew the change was going to be huge, whichever facility we chose. so we tried to find as many ways as possible to keep our life intact. This included finding a place not too far away so the overall community would still be familiar to us, and one that would allow us to bring enough personal items to continue our lifestyle as best we could. For example, we both use power wheelchairs and wanted to continue to do so as they give us the independence to travel several miles into the surrounding area. We are both artists and wanted to be able to bring our art supplies and our table. Of course we wanted to remain together for as long as possible.

We did a CANHR (California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform) search and it yielded nearly 700 facilities just for San Diego County. Most are converted single-family homes where they are able to keep six residents, two to a bedroom. Small facilities such as this do not have as restrictive licensing requirements as larger ones and they may be less expensive. For many people this might be a good alternative, however for us they were not appropriate.

Huntington Manor Dining Room

Every few days, before signing a contract, I would roll into the Huntington Manor dining room unannounced.

We needed wide hallways and doorways and adjoining separate rooms to accommodate our large wheelchairs — a physical layout rarely found in a single-family home. Since I cannot help with transfers, I needed a team of caregivers or an overhead lift system. I was also concerned whether a small facility would have the level of care we needed for Beth’s complex medication management and my challenging physical state due to inclusion body myositis.

There are several large assisted living facilities in the county, but they have fire code restrictions that prevent them from accepting non ambulatory residents. Most have associated skilled nursing facilities which is where they suggested I stay, but that would totally restrict my freedom and be very expensive. Also, because our needs were different, the large facilities planned to put my wife and I into two separate buildings.

After eliminating hundreds of facilities, we came upon Huntington Manor, just five miles east, in Poway, California. At 27 residents it was neither large nor small, which for our needs was just right.  It came with good online recommendations and had beautiful surroundings. What really caught my eye was their statement that they accepted nonambulatory patients. Huntington Manor specializes in caring for the frail elderly and has done all of the necessary legal groundwork to be able to accept up to 21 residents who are unable to bear weight. Also, for the first time, I found a facility owner who was willing, even eager, to let me install an overhead lift system in my room.

I stopped by several times, unannounced, to observe the staff and sample the food (friendly, delicious).

A plate of BBQ chicken, carrots and peas

With plates like this, Huntington Manor passed the taste test.

One drawback, which the owner made sure we understood, was the age of the other residents. Most are in their nineties, so we may need to look outside the facility for social interactions.

Price was an issue of course and although Huntington Manor was less expensive than some of the very large facilities, it is still more than we can afford indefinitely. Eventually we will need to sell our home and after that within a few years we’ll need to find some other living arrangement.

In the meantime I am looking for additional sources of income. (Any potential sponsors for this blog site, please take note.)

Index for this series of articles about assisted living.

Introductory article plus updates.

Is it time for assisted living?

Making the decision to move to assisted living, emotionally, practically and financially.

How we chose the facility we did.

Deciding what to take, what to leave, how to adjust our expectations.

What life in assisted living has been like.

How can we make assisted living better for the physically disabled?

May 292012
 

Note: At the time this series of articles was written, my wife Beth was still with us. She died October 11, 2012.

Beth having lunch during our first week at Huntington Manor

Beth having lunch on the deck outside our room during our first week at Huntington Manor

As my weakness from Inclusion Body Myositis became more debilitating and Beth’s vision and cognitive issues worsened, we faced the big question – should we move to assisted living?

There were several aspects to this decision. Perhaps the most easy to evaluate was the financial. Perhaps the most difficult was the emotional.
And then there were family issues, especially children who were tired of worrying about us.

Being the analytical type, I prepared numerous spreadsheets trying to decide whether the move to an assisted living facility made financial sense. I discovered that, to obtain adequate care within our home, we would need to spend about as much as it would cost to get assisted living outside the home. However, there were so many other emotional issues involved that no amount of tweaking the numbers on the spreadsheet seemed to fully resolve the issue in either of our minds.

View from our home in Rancho Bernardo

We had promised ourselves to spend the rest of our years in our Rancho Bernardo home.

We had spent a lot of money on, and had a significant emotional attachment to, the changes we made to our existing home. It was single-story, easy to get around for us in wheelchairs, and had a very nice view out the living room window. We each had our individual art studios on either side of the spacious family room. We would have to say goodbye to all of that. In addition we would be downsizing dramatically from about 1600 ft.² to a little over 500 ft.²

Then there was the concern about our independence. Would we feel as though we were unable to live our own lives if we moved into a facility that had its own schedule and structure?

Eventually, the more I worked on the financial side of it, the more I realized that moving to some form of facility was going to become inevitable. If we remained where we were and continued to spend considerably more money than we had coming in, we would eventually reach the point where we had exhausted our savings and then what? We could sell the home, but then we would hardly have enough resources to maintain us in any other location for more than a few years. On the other hand if we moved and spent down our savings, we could retain our home and rent it, which would provide additional income during that time. Then, when the savings was depleted, we could sell the home and continue to live in the assisted living facility for several more years.

So, ultimately, the practical considerations and family concerns outweighed the emotional worries. How is it working out? Better than we expected. In the next article we will get into the details of how we chose Huntington Manor to be our home – conceivably for the rest of our lives.

Index for this series of articles about assisted living.

Introductory article plus updates.

Is it time for assisted living?

Making the decision to move to assisted living, emotionally, practically and financially.

How we chose the facility we did.

Deciding what to take, what to leave, how to adjust our expectations.

What life in assisted living has been like.

How can we make assisted living better for the physically disabled?

Mar 112012
 

With an appropriate mobile arm support, I hope to some day return to creating art such as Quiet Harbor now part of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Art Collection.

Since I was diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM) 16 years ago, I have been stubbornly maintaining my independence. I have made use of every technical aid that I could find, beginning with canes and walkers and scooters and ultimately graduating to wheelchairs and hospital beds and overhead ceiling lifts. I started with a swing away lift in the back of van to take my scooter with me wherever I went, then bought a van with a ramp and a transfer seat, and ultimately moved to a van with an ez-lok system in the driver’s position. All these were steps to allow me to independently get around. I adapted my bathroom and my kitchen so that I can could continue to cook et cetera. I adapted my studio, even my workbench in the garage. I designed and sewed special shoes, pants, and leggings. No matter what, this disease was not going to get the better of me.

Today I am reluctantly admitting that this is one battle that ultimately I could not win. IBM is too progressive, too relentless, too untreatable. The final straw came when my right shoulder and arm became so weak that I could no longer raise my arm much above my waist. This meant that it was no longer safe for me to drive. It also meant that I could no longer chop vegetables or stir a skillet. It meant that I could no longer hold a paintbrush and create art. And worst of all, it meant that I was no longer an appropriate caregiver for my wife, whose own battle with Myotonic Muscular Dystrophy was not going well.

The first thing I did was have my van converted once again, only this time in the opposite direction. I had the passenger seat moved over into the driver’s seat position and put the ez-lok on the passenger side. This meant that I could pull into the van and lock myself in on the passenger side — provided I had found a willing driver to take me where I needed to go. Fortunately, my friends and family and neighbor have pitched in and I still have been able to get around when absolutely necessary. Perhaps more importantly, my wife, who also can’t drive and who has more medical challenges than I, could get to her various doctor appointments. When drivers aren’t available we are able to get to appointments using the accessible bus transportation called MTS access. It gets the job done, but it is certainly not a convenience. I plan an article on the general subject of bus transportation (and lack there of) soon.

But the really big change I have made is to hire caregivers for the two of us morning and night. The loss of arm strength meant that I was at great risk of being stranded when trying to use my ceiling lift to get into or out of bed or onto and off the toilet. After several close calls and more than a few minutes of hanging suspended in a very painful and awkward position, I realized I simply couldn’t go it alone anymore. It is an expensive adaptation and one that we will not be able to afford indefinitely. But for now it is getting us through each day. In future articles I will talk more about the good points of having caregivers.

I am also searching for a “mobile arm support.” The right one might restore some of the functions of my right hand and could possibly let me try to paint again.