Learning How to Grieve in Color

Part graphic novel and part memoir, Danny Gregory's A Kiss Before You Go recounts the designer's wife's death in a personal, original, and vibrant way.

gregory face.jpg
Danny Gregory

"....A week before our ninth anniversary together, the police drove me to the hospital. Patti had slipped and fallen on the tracks of the Christopher Street subway station. Three cars ran over her, breaking her spine, leaving her paraplegic. She would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair."

Ten years ago, Danny Gregory, the executive creative director and managing partner of the New York ad agency mcgarrybowen, wrote and illustrated a heart-wrenching testament to love, Everyday Matters: A Story of Love and Recovery. A memoir about the accident that caused his wife's paraplegia and how it changed everything, it chronicled Patti Gregory's defeats and triumphs as a woman, wife, and mother. His new book, A Kiss Before You Go (Chronicle Books) picks up the story at the same St. Vincent Hospital emergency room:

... I know it before the words come out in the cold white clinic; Patti has had a terrible accident. The EMTs have done all they could, the doctors have done all they could, but she hasn't made it. She is gone. I apologize to the doctor, my first instinct, for inconveniencing him with this mess ...

A Kiss Before You Go may appear to be a graphic novel, but the term is not entirely accurate. Nor does "visual memoir" quite fit either. The loose, impressionist watercolor drawings do not strictly fit graphic novel conventions, and Gregory, who is an inveterate journal/sketchbook-maker, has sewn this story together from numerous handwritten journal entries. The scratchily scrawled lettering, with accidental blotches and splotches, add even more gravity to his words. They're accompanied by often brightly colored watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings of friends, children, pets, and the everyday trapping of the Gregory family's life. The artwork, however, belies the palpable sadness—and this was no accident.



Before Patti died, Gregory was making drawings and paintings entirely in India ink washes, drawings just in shades of gray. "But Patti loved color," he explained in a recent email exchange. "She'd been a fashion director and a stylist, and she was known for her flamboyant sense of color, and that became even more intense when she was disabled, as if she wanted to draw attention to herself rather than to hide her disability." After her death, Gregory felt he needed to draw and paint in the most intense colors he could find and began using the legendary Dr. Martin's Radiant Watercolors. "I found I was just looking for color everywhere and these paints were the perfect medium." Just glancing at the the hand lettered, watercolor jacket image wouldn't give away that this book is about life and death—it looks more like an expressive children's book.



Gregory has kept journals on and off through most of his life. After Patti's accident he kept a record of what he calls his "search for meaning I had during those times, looking for an explanation as to what the hell was going on and why, trying to find some fresh perspective that would help both of us to get through it." Around that time he also did little drawings and notes, "cataloging all the things that still made life worth living for" which were collected into Everyday Matters.

"So when Patti died, it was fairly natural for me to keep on writing down how I felt, to record what was really a horrific time but also felt like an incredibly important experience. I was confronting so many emotions and new ideas about what my life was all about. And again I needed to have some sort of control over this tsunami of grief, boiling it down to a few paragraphs and a drawing contained it somehow. I also felt like I couldn't share this constant barrage of emotions with my friends and family. They were undergoing their own grief and, though we could share a lot of our feelings, there were so many things that seemed unique to me. Putting them down on paper help to contain them and get them out of my system."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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