Susan Gordon and Lisa Pimental

Lisa Pimental
Inspiration piece

Liz: No Lies, No Detours
By Susan Gordon


It is red, an alive red, a red suffused with light. Somehow opening the e-mail and finding the painting, small, in the lower left hand corner of my computer screen, set me to rocking, rocking on a straight back chair.

I don’t know what I imagined would come from Lisa Pimental, but not this.

I was struck dumb. Even in its fingertip size, I recognized it as a picture of Liz’s heart, sliced open. It is an image from before she died.

I didn’t know that I had been waiting for this red painting of the raw love between Liz and me. I didn’t know that this open-artery love was ours.

Looking at the painting, I hear an inside-the-body sound.

That is not a metaphor.

The painting puts me inside an artery; where I hear the whoosh / shoo as I ride the blood through.

Now I see that this is a mesa, an internal mesa, an outside landscape that is within. I see the climbing red earth, not one color but many shades of red: reds and orange, red with oil pastel sunset pink, reds pocked with black. A black of bat-caves bored into mesa or the caverns that occur as blood courses through veins.

And what I thought was light are yellow scratches, maybe created by the metal edge of palette knife. They fail to climb the red land. They are blocked by a red triangular nose of rock.

Suddenly I am transported; it is August of 1988. I am on a slow pony in Monument Park while Liz and Miriam are on the fastest ponies the Navajo men could find for two Maryland girls who say “We can ride.” My daughters are whooping and racing the Navajo boys; they are so far ahead that black hair and brown hair is indistinguishable. All I see are the paint ponies galloping.

In front of them rises a red tower of earth and rock that we East Coast folks know from the Chevy ads, when a Silverado truck is set on top. Suddenly my girls and I know it is real. Liz has fallen in love with this dry red land. She is fifteen and she will carry an album of this trip until she is dies. The battered blue album with pictures of the North-west and the South-west is a talisman that Liz holds onto as she searches for a way to return.

Lisa Pimental has brought me to this place: a mesa, an artery, a memory, a halved heart, all from scattered looks at her red top-to-bottom and red side-to-side acrylic painting.

I am struggling to breathe, to not cry. I know the terror and sorrow of the last six days is coloring all that I see in Lisa’s painting.

Liz crossed the River Styx.

I crossed it with her when she died on August 11, 2007. I came back.

I crossed it again on Wednesday, October 20, 2010.

I was in The Basford Funeral Home at the viewing of Mark, a young man who had committed suicide. I was standing to one side, only coming forward if the man’s brother needed someone to stand by beside him. He leaned over his dead brother’s coffin, lightly, very lightly punching his shoulder. But there was no waking his brother that evening and he knew it. Tears ran down his face. He made no sound; instead he wiped the back of his hand against his eyes.

I stayed there with him from the beginning of the viewing until the end. And while I was standing by a row of folding chairs lined against the sad striped, floral wall paper every funeral home has, two of Liz’s friends came in. I remembered the woman. She had been to Liz’s wild barn dances on our old farm when they were both in their early twenties. I had seen her again last March at a bluegrass concert in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

At the viewing she took me aside and introduced me to her “man.” His graying hair was pulled back in a pony tail. His nearly black eyes were fierce and corner-cut with laugh lines. He said, “I knew Liz; I was with her the night before she died.” Slowly, he began to tell me about Liz’s last night alive.

My heart stops as I write those words.

I want to fold into myself:

head to chest,

chest to knees,

knees to the floor.

Liz’s last night alive.

He told me he had been pursued by guilt, unable to speak to me for the last three years. He told me that Liz had gathered a concoction of pain medications that he had never seen before. He said to her, “Don’t take those, Liz. That combination, they’ll kill you.”

But Liz said, “I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand the pain.”

And she took them anyway.

Standing there at the viewing, he told me, “I couldn’t make her do what I wanted.

I couldn’t sit on her chest and stop her.”

Liz’s last night alive.

I said to the man, “You have to let go of self-blame; it doesn’t let you grieve. It never serves any purpose. Self-blame has only kept me from grief and joy.” And I said, “God brought us together tonight.” As I spoke those words, I knew it was the truth. I tried to lift the cloak of blame from him. I told him “Every one of us could be blaming our selves for things we did or did not do. There is more than enough to share.”

I gave him a hug. He hugged me back.

Later, I stood with Mark’s brother; I gave his mother a hug, and told her I would look for grief counselors.

But I didn’t tell any of them about the shame, the shame that I was meeting Liz’s friends at the viewing of an addict. The young man who died was a lot like Liz. He was good-hearted, honest, fun and was trying, trying, trying to put demons of all kinds to rest.

Still, he was a stone cold addict.

And maybe, so was Liz.

Those are a mother’s worst words, worst thoughts.

I left the porch of the funeral home. I walked up Church Street to my car. I got into my pale green Subaru Outback with a dent in the left rear fender and sank down into the seat.

I may have said it aloud; what I surely, suddenly knew, Liz was in so much pain, more pain than I ever imagined.  Somehow, until that moment, I had never understood the break-every-bone-in-your-body pain she endured every day.

In the car, I disintegrated.

I was undone.

I could see Liz; I could see the pain. It was as red as Lisa’s painting. Oh, Liz, I started to say, but I could hardly hold that thought. I was suddenly certain that Liz had died of a drug overdose and not the heart attack the medical examiners reported. I called two friends; I called Dr. Hyde, my neurologist. Dr. Hyde set me straight; “Did the medical examiners say it was a heart attack?” I nodded through the phone. “Then that’s what it is. Heart attack shows a blockage and dead heart tissue, it doesn’t look anything like asphyxiation; it doesn’t look like a body that just stopped breathing.”

I believed him but somehow it didn’t matter. My girl had been in so much pain. And, although it wasn’t an overdose, it could have been, it could have been, because Liz was in pain beyond my understanding and was just trying to shut it up.

For the next two days a grief I had not known at Liz’s death, took me to the floor.

But by Thursday evening I was back in my office, seeing clients; a man in his late thirties with fetal alcohol syndrome and a younger woman, schizo-affective, terribly addicted and in great grief over the loss of her mother.

I could not save my daughter; I cannot save my clients.

But I can continue to show up and do the work I love, the work Liz was proud of me for doing. Lisa’s painting doesn’t allow for lies, for detours. When I look I see raw red, slippery blood, a halved heart. I’m sliding down and it is in this complicated and bloody place where my love and Liz’s love, lives.

The man with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the woman struggling with paranoia, that dead young man, his living brother and their mother; they are all in Lisa’s painting. We are all there, every living thing. We are a thick smear of pocked red that pulses sorrow, pulses joy.

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  1. Posted November 5, 2010 at 1:34 am | #

    Beautiful and sad and heartbreaking and profound and so real, like life. This is a wonderful piece Susan – thank you for sharing this with us. You are so brave and so talented and reflecting on your words truly made a real difference to me tonight.

  2. Posted November 5, 2010 at 1:07 pm | #

    This was heart wrenching. May you find peace.

  3. Posted November 6, 2010 at 8:18 pm | #


    I was deeply touched by this piece. I felt you were simultaneously present in this moment with Lisa’s painting and with an epiphany of the heart connected to 3+ year old pain. I was both transported and fixed in place if that is even possible.

    Thank you for sharing this deeply personal and vivid moment. I wish you the peace you so deserve.


  4. Posted November 23, 2010 at 2:01 am | #

    For Susan and Lisa
    It is a few weeks and yet your work (both) continues to return and remind me of the shocks that blindside us. That force us to once again pull us with the rip tide and come up for air. The shocks of earthquake proportions tsunami in power. But they happen, and in the end does it matter if we ‘believe’ or not. It’s the blindside that’s the thing and the will to come back up for air. Over and over.
    Thank you Susan and Lisa.