Mathew Crawford, a fellow student of mine, asked me to collaborate with him on an art project. His three-year-old son Isaiah died of leukemia only a few years ago, and in one of the first conversations I had with Mat, he told me he was at Duke in order to figure out how it was possible that the experience of caring for his son during that last illness had been both the most horrific and the most beautiful experience of his life. Mat is a photographer, and he said he had a photograph of Isaiah that, he felt, captured some of the power of the experience for him. For the collaboration, he printed this photograph for me on watercolor paper, and asked me to begin with that background and interpret freely. Our goal was to make visible a small piece of what he meant when he wrote the following, in a longer piece reflecting on his son’s illness:
“The image is etched into my memory: it is very late at night; my son’s heart tethered to a totem pole of pumps, bags, and lights; his face swollen with fluids, distorted and strange; he is half asleep and so am I; he sits on the potty for so long, his eyes half shut, I am afraid he might fall; nothing “special” happens; no one says anything profound; just a swollen son and a tired father looking at him while leaning on the doorjamb. Yet in this strange and horrific context, I experienced something on the face of my son. I know no other word to describe it than beauty.”
That passage and the photograph itself were my beginning point, and the images below are part of the series that resulted. I chose birds to pair with Mat’s words and with Isaiah’s face in several of the images because the bodies of birds in flight say so much to me about strength and freedom and also about fragility. A house sparrow’s heart beats four hundred and sixty times a minute. Life is condensed, in birds, in a way that makes its preciousness and its tenuousness harder to ignore. It is not an accident, I think, that Jesus chose sparrows in order to tell us of God’s particular care for each of our fast-beating lives.
The series is meant to stand as one piece, and its title is I Know No Other Word.
I Know No Other Word, Leaf