The Setting Sun Meets the White Fish

Published on 22 July 2023 at 10:53

Medium: Watercolor

Date: 1990

Hello Friends. Let me tell you a story from my life.

My brother had been invited to Colorado Springs by the Olympic Training Center to coach a group of Chinese athletes in table tennis. For many years, he had been a renowned champion in both tennis and table tennis in Minnesota.

I still remember his wife's amusement at the seriousness of the Minnesota players. When Miss Universe visited their club, not a single player looked up from their intense game to acknowledge her.

My brother led a healthy lifestyle. He abstained from coffee and alcohol, had a love for vegetables, avoided sugar, and ran 10 miles a day. At the age of 47, while training at the Olympic Center, he felt in good health. However, a physician on duty there recommended that he go to the hospital for a check-up.

With no particular concerns, he went for the check-up. The physicians at the hospital delivered shocking news to his wife in Minneapolis. "He may not wake up," they said. He had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

After his diagnosis, he returned to Minneapolis. To provide a peaceful diversion, his wife purchased a large water tank and filled it with an assortment of small, beautiful freshwater fish. We all anticipated watching them swim serenely in their spacious pool. However, the reality was different. The fish darted back and forth, their frantic movements being more unsettling than calming.

Adding to the strange dynamics, four tiny crabs we had introduced were found the next morning hiding in a nearby clothes closet. As the days passed, we noticed one or two fish disappearing. We were baffled, unsure which fish was preying on the others. Yet, we kept watching. Our focus shifted from the cancer to the unusual aquatic activity.

A couple of months later, we learned that the two tiny lobsters were the culprits, having devoured the other fish. The fate of these two lobsters remained a mystery, and I never asked whether one had consumed the other.

My brother, a respected administrative head of a large hospital and a clinical psychologist, was encouraged by his wife to receive mental therapy. Known for his even temperament and his ability to understand differing perspectives, he had earned a reputation for wisdom, calm, and a quintessential "Minnesota Nice" demeanor. During his PhD studies, he had never been recommended for therapy. We were raised not to express or even feel anger.

His parting advice to me was poignant. "Our childhood has killed me," he said, "Go into therapy and save yourself while there is still time." After our cousin David gave me a book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware by Alice Miller, I decided to follow my brother's advice. I spent twelve intense years in therapy.

Today, I look back on this time as transformative. Over those years, I painted a picture of the water tank with one menacing fish, symbolizing the lurking threat. This blog is about that painting.

As is my habit, I stared at the blank paper for a while, waiting for some form or image to begin manifesting. Patience was key until enough lines were there for me to follow. There was no preconceived idea in mind; I merely followed the small fragments that began to appear amidst the fog of white.

When a halo of rays began to emerge over the water in my artwork, a friend with a remarkable sense of color came by. He made some suggestions, indicating where certain hues should be placed. His advice worked wonders on the piece.

Finally, I discovered a small, vicious white fish in the lower corner of the painting. I knew then that the picture was achieving a subconscious meaning that had been hovering in the back of my mind. It felt as though a piece of a puzzle had fallen into place. This tiny, seemingly insignificant creature represented so much more than just a fish - it was a symbol of the silent and deadly cancer that had snuck up on my brother, much like a predator in a peaceful tank of fish. It was a reminder of the cruel unpredictability of life, the way danger can lurk in the most unexpected places.

This white fish was more than just a part of the painting; it was a manifestation of my fears, my grief, and the helpless anger I felt towards my brother's untimely demise. Each stroke that formed the fish was a stroke against denial, a recognition of the raw and painful truth. It was a manifestation of my brother's courage and the indomitable spirit he had shown in the face of a fatal disease. He said with a laugh, "On my shelf I have 2000 books that I need to read but now I do not have to."

The painting, thus, became more than just a mix of colors and shapes on a canvas. It was an intimate journey through loss, remembrance, and eventual acceptance. The vicious fish served as a stark reminder of the capriciousness of life, a brutal testament to the truth that life is a mix of light and dark hues.

So, when I stood back and looked at the completed painting, I didn't just see a water tank with a white fish. I saw a chapter of my life - marked by loss and healing - enshrined in color and canvas. I saw the culmination of a subconscious thought process that had finally found expression. The painting was not just an artwork; it was a piece of my soul, a testament of my journey through grief, and a tribute to my brother's memory.

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