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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Washed Away

I’ll admit it.  I am afraid of the garbage disposal.

I think I shall blame that phobia on Stephen King, as I read Firestarter at a very impressionable age.  There were many visually terrifying scenes within that book, but I think death by garbage disposal was the most gruesome.

How does one die via garbage disposal?  Well, in Stephen King’s work, one of the main characters in the book has a little telepathic ability he calls “the push.”  He can push other people within their mind to do things or see that which he wishes them to see.  Unfortunately, the poor recipients of “the push” often develop an echo that becomes a ricocheting thought.  That ricocheting thought then begins to tear up the poor victim’s mind.  The pressure and confusion becomes so bad that death by garbage disposal seems like a good option.

The first time I lived in a home with a garbage disposal was at my Aunt Hilda’s house as a young child.  I found the bright yellow enameled sink with its dark steel maw a disturbing juxtaposition.  But this dichotomy existed in a happy house, and I could ignore my fears.   After all, Aunt Hilda would just laugh and cook and rarely turn the disposal on.  Almost every summer of my life I have visited Aunt Hilda’s house.  But theses last few years Aunt Hilda had not been there, instead my mother has been staying in the pretty yellow house. 

Aunt Hilda had been living in a nursing home as Alzheimer’s destroyed her mind, just as assuredly as a garbage disposal destroyed the contents of its darkened chamber. 

I visited her only once this summer whilst in town, and that visit only lasted minutes.  Aunt Hilda was methodically chewing food spooned into her mouth by her loving sister Aunt Minnie.  She hadn’t spoken in years.  But she could still remember how to swallow.

I left her in the nursing home and went back to her house stared into the maw of the garbage disposal. 

Then I began to paint Mary Anne Sterling’s Jacket: “Washed Away.”

Washed Away

Do you know Mary Anne?  She is the CEO of Sterling Health IT and was the 2010/2011 HIMSS Institute for e-Health Policy Executive in Residence.  I have seen Mary Anne at many health IT events in DC over the past two years.  She is usually the quiet one in many discussions, biding her time and then surprising us all with her astute analysis and eloquent delivery. 

Her dedication to creating a better healthcare system is very personal.  She watched her father die a long slow death from Alzheimer’s.

She began caring for her parents while in her twenties.  Her father began to suffer the first signs of dementia in his early 70’s.  So began their hellish family odyssey.  The years and years of care dragged on.  The family liquidated all assets to provide care for the father.  Twenty years passed by in decline as his ailing wife tried to care for her dying husband.  Time passed and Mary Anne’s father had no idea that this beautiful young woman was his daughter.  And still her father fell deeper and deeper into darkness.  He was placed in a nursing home on Medicaid while Mary Anne struggled to support herself and her aging mother.

too late

Mary Anne struggles so, and thus I painted her.  One hand reaches out bravely trying to hold her father’s hand before he is washed away, before he is torn to shreds by a disease as unforgiving as a steel in-sink-erator.   She fails in her endeavor and her father dies in 2001, at the age of 95.

In her other hand she holds her mother upon the ledge.  She is supporting her physically, emotionally and financially.  Her mother looks upon the scene with confusion as mild cognitive impairment has begun to cloud her mind.

too much

Behind and above this scene of tragedy is a window.  It is a beautiful summer day and only glass separates these figures from the bright sun and soft breeze.  Only glass as hard and restraining as steel separates those stuck within a nursing home bed from the freeing breezes of a summer day. 

I painted this in my Aunt Hilda’s kitchen in Oklahoma.  A little over a month after I painted this, Aunt Hilda died.  I am glad Mary Anne has worn this jacket to events this past fall.  As she wears it, the story of her father lives on and so in part does my Aunt Hilda.

Mary Anne Sterling


  1. Thank you, Regina. You're doing a wonderful and generous series of kind acts to support caregivers and spread the word. The ripples that spread from your actions are already changing the world.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! We are all in this together :)