Finding Unexpected Gifts Deep in a Crisis

In 1999, a year and a half into our struggle with Alzheimer’s and its depressing symptoms, Martha’s confidence suddenly surged.

Our sister-in-law KK was encouraging Martha to take an art class with her. Martha hadn’t shown an interest in quiet hobbies like art. She instead liked action—things like dancing, playing tennis, singing, talking smack, and hiking.

So I was surprised, stunned really, when Martha said yes. I think she did because she loved KK, and anyone who knew KK knew she could be persuasive. They started a watercolor class once a week for four hours at the St. Petersburg Art Center. The teacher was Judi Dazzio

Martha jumped in feet first. She painted scores of pictures large and small—turtles and fish in an orange-and-green sea; a multi-colored zebra; a blue-faced hippo walking atop an orange-and-yellow rainbow, to describe a few. To see these and others, click this picture…

I think this picture is a self-portrait of Martha, but I’m unsure what she had in mind. It hangs in our living room, where I’ve seen it thousands of times.

Her teacher Judi would hand Martha a sketch to paint, and Martha began to do so with a complexity and boldness of color that reflected a dimension I’d never seen in her. I have no idea where that came from. 

Neither did Judi, who pulled me aside one day. “Carlen, this can’t be taught,” she said of Martha’s use of color. But what a delight it was to see this talent unfold out of a dark and scary place. 

And to see the surge in Martha’s confidence.  

As much as I enjoyed Martha’s artwork, I enjoyed even more hearing her talk about each piece. And seeing the glow in her face when she completed one. The lethargy so common with Alzheimer’s just melted away. 

I remember Martha talking on the phone with our daughter Rachel, who was away at college. She was describing an art show in which she exhibited two paintings. Martha was excited and fluent. 

At that exhibit, Martha’s paintings were the only ones from her class to be displayed.  The exhibit was at the Suntan Art Center on St. Pete Beach, next door to the big pink Don Cesar hotel. 

The Friday the exhibit opened, Martha couldn’t wait to get there. “Look, here they are,” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me to the paintings. You’d think there were no other paintings in this show, I thought as I smiled. She beamed as she looked at them and then she showed me their price tags: $200 each. “Judi helped me price them.” We returned Sunday afternoon to see if the paintings had sold. They hadn’t. But that didn’t matter. 

And then…after two years or so of painting, Martha’s desire and talent evaporated as quickly and quietly as they had emerged. “If it were only possible to bottle this confidence,” I thought as Martha’s mind slipped away to an unknown place. Those two years, however, are engraved warmly on my heart. 

Along our way, a mentor friend told me to look for the little things that emerge and to be thankful for them. That was good advice, but boy it’s hard to do when you’re deep in a crisis. Yet as he often told me, especially when I was about to give up: “I didn’t say it was easy, Carlen. I just said it works!” 

As Martha’s interest in painting grew, I at first tried to figure out how this was happening. I wanted to replicate it in other realms of her life. But I quickly stopped, deciding instead to enjoy the moment for what it is—a moment of grace revealed.  

Have you experienced anything good in the midst of your crisis that surprised you? Would you care to share? You can at #APathRevealed. Or you can email me at (subject line: My Story).



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