1996

Twelve is an age to separate, when many children yell at their parents, “I wish you were dead!” But death was already too present in our house, and Eve opted for geographical distance: she announced that she wanted to go to boarding school. She’d lived without much privacy all her life, and she wanted to get away from being the primary focus of her parents’ and grandparents’ attention. She also must have hungered for a community where illness and mortality were not such prominent features. We visited schools and sent in applications, my mother supported the decision and agreed to pay tuition, and in the fall of 1996, at the age of fourteen, Eve went off on her own.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

Mary Ann still loved to travel and that summer, maybe to give Eve a memorable send-off, she mustered the energy to organize a six-week trip for just the three of us to the Four Corners, the area at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. We planned our days to accommodate Mary Ann’s limited endurance, and she skipped some of the excursions. Though I did all the driving, she still got worn down by the many hours of car travel, so we changed our plans and found a small house to rent near Taos, where my uncle Sydney and his wife Flora were living. They were welcoming, and we had many lunches with them and their artist friends.

These were not just friends who happened to be artists. Flora was the granddaughter of the Whitney who founded the contemporary art museum and had herself served as its President. Some of the artists who came to lunch were world famous; they were all well-recognized and successful. They were also, in that context, at least, approachable and amusing. Mary Ann sat next to a minimalist painter named Agnes Martin, eighty-four years old, small and of few words, radiating quiet confidence. Out of the blue, disconnected to any of the conversation going on around her, she started to speak and told us the story of how, thirty years earlier, she’d left New York City: she had a dream of a single adobe brick, made her way to New Mexico, and started building with adobe bricks that she made herself. Mary Ann was delighted by this old woman’s earthiness and her faith in her dreams, and the old painter took pleasure in the younger woman’s delight.

Rock In A Landslide

 
Mary Ann was delighted by this old woman’s earthiness and her faith in her dreams...
 

When I look at the stack of pictures from that trip, I’m reminded what a special adventure it was. We were far from New York City, in a remarkable landscape, and far from the nagging demands of work and studio and home. Our days were ours to create. Even if we hadn’t earned it through curatorial recognition, we enjoyed a brief sojourn in the art world stratosphere. We were relaxed enough to accept and enjoy our good luck.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

Then there are a few prints of us looking exhausted. Our faces are lax, too tired even to be tense. We look bewildered, as if we didn’t understand what had happened to us or what might happen next.

—Rock In A Landslide

 

I didn’t understand it when Mary Ann began to smell things that I couldn’t. In the spring before we went west, she complained about the smell of naphthalene in our bedroom. Even though I couldn’t smell it, I threw out every mothball I could find and aired out all the drawers and closets. She still complained. She was driving me crazy, and I wondered if she was crazy. Eventually I found a few small pieces of mothball I’d missed at the bottom of a garment bag. I didn’t have any idea what it meant that she could smell that way, though I later learned that a heightened sense of smell was a hint that there were problems in her brain.

At the end of the summer, after returning from the West, we went camping with my mother and a friend on an island off the coast of Maine. Mary Ann had a hard time with her balance on the rocky shore and made jokes about “cancer in the brain.” We knew that breast-bone-brain was the standard progression, and maybe she was trying to prepare us for something she had already intuited. I remember her laughing at her own jokes, but I saw that they made Eve cringe, and they were painful and frightening for me too. Eve’s memory of the excursion was that the adults got so drunk they undercooked the lobsters and ate them anyway.

That fall, back in New York City, Mary Ann and I went together to her doctor, her ally, the same woman she’d shifted to years before. As Mary Ann lay on the examining table, having just sent Eve off to boarding school, she lost the ability to speak. She could only respond with nods and shakes of her head, and as she turned to look first at her doctor and then at me, what I saw in her eyes was both fear and acceptance.

She had to take steroids with the radiation, to prevent brain swelling. Although the steroid experience start to finish lasted no more than two months, it seemed like two years. It started disastrously. When the pharmacist didn’t have the prescribed dosage, he dispensed double strength pills, only noted it on the bottle, and didn’t tell Mary Ann face to face. She couldn’t have taken more than three or four overdoses before discovering the mistake, but that was enough to send the side effects into overdrive.

Steroids change what you look like. Mary Ann assumed a “cushingoid appearance” due to a side effect that left fatty deposits in her face and shoulders: moon face and buffalo hump. Not one to lose her style, she exaggerated her makeup on her enlarged face and wore dashing and extravagant hats and clothing.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
... maybe she was trying to prepare us for something she had already intuited.
Kelly Nowels