A Eulogy I Never Got To Give

On February 14, 2016, my sister Denya died at age 47. After my mother’s tearful call, we went into robot mode and made plans to get back to central NY for the funeral. It’s always a trial to get packed, organized in the van, and on the road. It was more trying this time, though, thinking about the reasons for our trip. Part of what I was trying to work out was just what to think about losing Denya.

I was asked to speak a eulogy and I had been thinking about it during the drive – I had a good chunk of it formulated in my mind. So after the calling hours on the 17th of February, we went back up to our hotel room and I began writing down what I’d say.  At least that’s what I have been informed happened, because I had a heart attack in the hotel room fairly soon after arriving there that evening. I forgot much of what happened over the previous few days, with only brief snippets remaining.

Providentially, my wife was right there, as were the many EMTs, nurses, and healthcare professionals who were in our family or friends with my sister. Within minutes I was being worked on and transported to hospital. Though I am nowhere near 100%, every day feels like a bit more has returned.

So now I want to share the eulogy that I never got to give.


Denya was the definition of determination, clarity of vision, and kindness of heart. At 16, seeing that our stepfather was abusive, Denya decided to leave home and make her own way. She stayed with friends. She got herself to school and work. She did not allow this provisional stage to define her; she aimed toward college. She didn’t let herself get tripped up by small thinking. She didn’t fall into a spiral of foolish actions and relationships; she was wise. Continuing to work and support herself, Denya went to nursing school, eventually rising through the EMT ranks and working in the intense world of Emergency Room trauma.

imageDenya, age 4.

She grew in faith. She grew in family. She had seen her way through difficult situations at home. She worked toward a vision of education and work and made it happen. She found love in the stability and thoughtfulness of a strong, gentle, honorable man – a man who shared her vision for work and family, for faith and clarity of purpose. In marrying Timmy, Denya truly became an iconic example in my life.

imageDenya and Tim on their wedding day in 1993.

She had already been a great example of hard work and applied education, but now she was living out the sort of teamwork marriage to which I could aspire. Together, Denya and Tim built a home that was hospitable, secure, fun, and a stage for dreams. When I think back on Denya, that’s what I see: faith, family, and fun.

I also see someone who persevered through periods of intense physical and emotional pain – losing Cassandra; struggling with the effects of lupus constantly; and nearly dying when Cassilyn and Elisabeth were young. It was not merely going through these and other things that were important. It’s that she went through them with grace, strength, acceptance, and transformation. These qualities were already in her, and they were focused and made more potent through her experiences.

She – along with Tim – modeled long-suffering of physical pain like no one else I’ve known. She – along with Tim – showed us what good parenting could be: parenting with grace, fun, and high expectations. She – along with Tim – demonstrated gentle guidance, constant availability, and true enjoyment of their girls. She – along with Tim – lived life with joy and thoughtfulness. She – along with Tim – crafted a home life that nurtured not only their own family but also the families that touched theirs.

imageDenya with her girls.

So while her death is horrible and sad, and we wish we could have had many more years with her, in a very real way – at least to me – her death is not tragic. What I mean here is that nothing was wasted. She had no dead years, no years of lost potential. She redeemed the time. She made the most of what was given to her. There were no excuses in her life, no regrets. She didn’t live in anger or sorrow about what might have been. That is a triumphant life – a life full of meaning. It’s a life we can be thankful to have witnessed and been a part of.

Denya’s death is a huge loss. Yet each of us has been allowed to bear witness to her example, to her grace, and to her laughter in some way. Seeing her working at the Super Duper. Seeing her pursue her nursing education and succeed at it. Seeing her Camaro with the airbrushed roses on the sides. Hearing her infectious laugh. Watching her play the Red Queen in a high school production of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe you’re even one of the lucky ones who experienced her jumping out of the twilight shouting “I’M DA BREATHER!!!” at you, scaring you half to death.

imageAn airbrushed rose from the side of Denya’s Camaro.

I will miss you, Denya. I’ll miss your love and faith. I’ll miss your sense of humor and your grace. But I know that these things clearly live on in those who knew you, loved you, and built lives with you. We are so thankful to have had you with us for this time, and we know that you carry on.

imageA recent note from Denya.


David and Patch

David-and-Patch2014David and Patch (Professor David Oliver’s Mandala). Acrylic and gold on panel, 30 by 30 inches, 2014. Click the image for enlargement.

Professor David Oliver is an amazing person. He is a husband, father, and grandfather. He is a professor and mentor. He is passionate about life and justice and hope. He is dying.

Diagnosed with Stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma in 2011, he knew his days were limited. An expert on aging who had built a long career in Gerontology and understanding end-of-life issues, David knew that he could apply all he’d studied, learned, and implemented to his cancer. In the years since the diagnosis he has produced a series of videos that detail his cancer journey on his blog, written a book on demystifying death, and won awards (along with this wife) for work on improving end-of-life care.

David’s story is certainly inspirational (you can read more at The Huffington Post here), but it also has a personal angle for me. David was my mother-in-law’s mentor nearly 40 years ago when she was a student at the College of the Ozarks and he was a professor there. Over the years they have continued to have a warm relationship, and mom was dramatically influenced by David’s character and understanding. As providence would have it, his career journey led him to the University of Missouri. When I arrived to teach here in 2007 he was an early advocate for me, meeting with me and encouraging me. The mentor came full circle in impacting our family.

I knew I wanted to make a portrait of him for my Becoming the Student series, but I didn’t want to impose, figuring he had better things to do with his remaining days than pose for me. But when he emailed me one day last month to talk to me about a lecture I’d recently given, I ventured to ask about making his portrait. He said that he probably only had a matter of weeks left, and that we’d have to act fast, but that he’d be happy to be a part of it. The next morning I was sitting in his living room making the painting you see above.

Photo Dec 20, 2 01 44 PMDavid and I pose with the portrait in progress, November 2014.

While I worked on the portrait we had a great conversation about education, travel, teaching, and family. After, while I worked to add in the mandala structure, we exchanged emails which added to our dialogue. Here are just a few nuggets from our time together:

On travel:

“Travel is the greatest education.” David has been to hundreds of major cities around the world over the decades, but has spent time in Istanbul, Barcelona, Copenhagen, among others, in the last few years. His eyes twinkle and voice grows excited while recounting past travels through Europe and Asia with family.

On experiencing cancer:

“I can’t tell you what cancer feels like, but I can tell you about how the treatments feel. I chose the non-aggressive path.” David had to make big choices about the sort of care he would undertake to fight his cancer. Though he has had rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, he chose to limit them both. Ultimately he went with palliative and hospice care over more forceful options. “My voice is my life” he told me, so he decided not to have surgeries that would have resulted in a loss of his ability to speak.

Photo Dec 20, 3 41 55 PMAbove: the piece installed above the mantel at David’s home.

On the goals for palliative care and hospice:

“I want to be at Home, surrounded by Others, be Pain-free, and Engaged as long as I can be. That acronym spells HOPE. It’s pretty simple, and that’s the exit strategy. I want to be a role model for another way.” By entering hospice early and focusing on his HOPE model, David has been able to spend a lot of quality time with family and even go to events like basketball games for his beloved Mizzou Tigers.

On Patch:

“I’m a spectator in my own body – I call him Patch. But I’m thinking, feeling, acting, and taking advantage of every moment I’ve got left. I have millions of moments to experience, so I’ll let others worry about Patch. Patch is off doing his thing; the hospice team is taking care of him. I was able to let him go. I think people who continue to treat their body view themselves as one holistic entity… they’re not able to separate to understand what’s inward. There are many things in the body that are happening and you can’t stop them. But I am not my shortness of breath or anything else that may be happening to Patch. I’ll just let hospice patch him up.” Calling his physical body by the name Patch is a way for David to both embrace the care that body needs and reinforce the distinction between his identity and his body. That body is passing away, but David sees his inner life as separate from the vicissitudes forced upon his “shell” by cancer, medications, pain, and general breakdown. David has found a way to grasp his embodiment without seeing it as absolutely necessary to his personhood.

David-and-Patch2014_angleAbove: The portrait shown at an angle to show the change of reflected light in the gold leaf.


My notes about this piece:

The most significant material I have used in this painting is gold leaf. Gold leaf is a traditional medium to suggest the divine and sacred. I also chose to build a complementary-colored mandala as the field upon which the portrait is embedded. Additionally, I centered the transition between David’s physical portrait and his inverse, transcendent manifestation around the Crown Chakra. The Crown Chakra is is associated with meaning and identity in the context of divine consciousness and enlightenment; the part of us that passes beyond this mortal coil. Surrounding that arena of transition and transformation are laurel leaves, traditional symbols of victory and attainment. This piece is meant to connect David’s personal associations (his name, his body, his visage) with broader, more universal conceptions of moving from one state to another – higher, entirely other – state. I combine Eastern conceptions encapsulated in the mandala with Western notions included in the idea of the memorial portrait. In some sense this is an apotheosis artwork (as an example, see The Apotheosis of Homer by Ingres).

The painting is meant to suggest that a binary group is being presented: David and Patch, bright gold and dark black, transformation and deterioration, transcendence and impermanence, immaterial and material, contemplation and dissolution, enlightenment and illusion, and the circle and the square… there are many others that could be named. These all speak to ancient alchemical oppositions.


I am honored to be able to celebrate this humble and gentle man. Even in the last days and hours of his life he is encouraging, hopeful, loving, and inclusive. He has been given the great gift of applying his life-long study of aging and dying to his own direct experience, and he’s drawn others into it with joy. I’m so thankful I got to include David in my portrait series.

Thank you, David!

PS: And a thank you to Debbie, David’s wife! She crafted this beautiful handmade textile piece for my new son:

Photo Dec 20, 3 32 03 PM

Every Brushstroke An Opportunity to Help Change a Life

il_570xN.276209062Situation and Circumstance Overcome, Oil on Panel, 16 by 20 inches. 2003.

Eleven years ago I created this painting. Over the years many people have asked me to create copies of it for them. There are more than 15 versions of this piece scattered across the US. Now you have an opportunity to get one of your own AND help support the adoption process for two of my good friends, Aarik and Brooke Danielsen.

il_570xN.276129237Detail of Situation and Circumstance Overcome.

The original piece is one of the most important artworks I’ve created. Its quality of construction, unique place in the story of my art making, and the personal significance it holds cause me to value it highly. For $400 you can have your very own version of this painting. I will donate every cent of the sale price to the Danielsens’ adoption fund.

I am taking up to 10 orders and I will deliver the finished works by July 2015. If you want to have a beautiful, evocative work of art for your home and help give a child a home they deserve, please consider ordering one here. I love the Danielsens and am excited to give anything I can to their adoption journey. If you follow my blog, you know how close adoption is to my heart. I hope you’ll give me a lot of work to do; every brushstroke will be done with love and joy, and in the knowledge that each one is making a real difference to a real person.

To find out more about the Danielsens’ adoption and learn more about how you can help, check out their blog here.

If you have questions let me know.

il_570xN.276209106Detail of Situation and Circumstance Overcome.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THE SAMPLE IMAGES ABOVE ARE EXAMPLES OF THE ORIGINAL PAINTING. Copies that I create will have variation, but will maintain the overall composition, color, and general surface structure of the original, and will be created exactly to the scale of the original.

My Favorite Artist Turned 4 Today

My first-born came into the open air of this reality four years ago today. She is glorious and wonderful. She is sensation and awe. She is questions and answers. She is being and making and trying. She is joy. And look at the authority with which she handles those paint tools!






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The Little Bow


Three years ago today my little Miranda Grace Ballou was born. When she emerged into the world – and once they cleaned her up and checked her out – the nurse placed this tiny pink bow in her full head of hair. We kept it in place for a couple days but necessity won out and I have kept the little bow in my wallet ever since. I’m so thankful for my girl. A few tears of appreciation and joy escaped as I wished her a happy birthday this morning as she awoke. 395972_3469533019531_1003640245_n

What an incredible three years (and 9 months) it has been, my daughter. XOXOXO

The Big Tree

This week was Spring Break for me (and the rest of the University of Missouri). Not that it really felt like much of a break. I honestly don’t remember what it’s really like to just be free. I don’t begrudge my responsibilities – much to the contrary, I’m grateful that they’re things I believe in and understand to be meaningful. Yet the freshness of just being able to BE… well, I guess I’ll have to experience that vicariously. 

One of the ways I see that “astonishment of being” taking place is through the experiences of my daughter. This week when we took her to see The Big Tree near Columbia where we live (here’s the Tree’s Facebook page) she was pretty excited. 


A group of shots of her at the base of the tree.


And with mom out in the field nearby…


…she picked flowers for the first time!


A pretty nice view.

Overall it was a good, joyful day. I’m blessed by the delight in her eyes at moments like these. I’m hopeful that we can let Miranda just experience being alive for as long as possible, before the cares and responsibilities crowd out wonder.

Miranda Grace Ballou


Your hands and feet… your eyes and brain… they are all more than fresh; they are still being knit together.

As I sit here, there you are across the room in your mother, your heart striking a tattoo of potential to future joys and woes. When I think about all that I am, all that your mom is, all that our people are, all that our world is, I am caught short of breath… not really overwhelmed, but overawed.

Overawed because I know that, in major ways (foreseen and unforeseen), I will be part of the way you access all that has been. This great world, this great universe of experience and time and sensation and being – each facet part of your inheritance as a human being – is going to be presented to you by my faltering, limited, frail hands and voice.

And I am moved by all of this, partly because I know that being alive is hard and I don’t want you to hurt. But I am more moved by it because I know how much the miracle of being conscious has inundated me, made me, transformed me. The glories and wonders of the things you’ll know and see and touch and hear and be flood me; I, too, know them, and know that you’ll know them so much differently than I have. But we’ll have that knowing to share.

Part of that knowing is a realization that the dignity of what you are is because of a Story that transcends space, time, personality, individuality, and being itself. That’s the place I want to start, even as we explore everything else, because everything else is embedded in that Story. You are in that Story.

You are the precious thoughts of the Author of that Story. You are the manifestation of the articulated structures of Story rippling through all things. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!