Learning How to Grieve in Color

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

Gregory began "journaling" within a week of Patti's death. Shortly after, his editor at Chronicle Books contacted him about doing a completely different book. Still so overcome, he couldn't even make a dent. Instead, he showed her some journal pages, which she suggested doing as a book. "I felt a bit awkward about sharing such intimate stuff with the world, but my experience with Everyday Matters was encouraging to me" he said, because it had triggered a community of thousands of people who shared their drawings, journals and lives. "I felt I could trust them with the story and these feelings I had."

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After Patti's death the core of his journal was kept in his sketchbook containing paintings and short essays. "But I also would write thoughts on my computer, or even on my phone as I walked to work," Gregory said. "Thoughts would hit me all day long, and by putting them down, I made them meaningful. I think that's what so much of this was about, creating meaning out of chaos. It's what kept me going."

In addition to visually documenting the objects that made up their lives, Gregory includes a number of portraits of Patti, something he says he had to force himself to do. "I tend to record what's right in front of me here and now rather than go through mementos. I don't draw her anymore. Maybe I will come back to that. But it will always make me sad."

Doing this work was cathartic for Gregory, and his extended family appreciates that Patti lives on through the book. His son's response, however, was sobering: "Dad," he told Gregory, "I already went through this once. I don't know if I want to read about it again.'" In 10 years he may want to come back to it, Gregory hopes, "and he may want to share with his wife and his kids, and that's a valuable and lovely thing too." Gregory also admits "what I hope for the book is yet to come. It's only been out for a few weeks and already I've gotten many, many emails from people telling me how it has affected them. Some are people who have lost loved ones recently, widows and adult children who lost their parents. But lots have also told me that reading the book made them appreciate their own marriages that much more. One woman said, 'After I put the book down, I immediately went and kissed my husband and I've been a lot nicer to him ever since.' I think that's more the kind of thing I'd hoped for. I want to take this sad and terrible time and turn it into something of value to people. I want to leave them feeling perhaps a little shaken but also a little glad."

This is a difficult book to read. But it is also a great insight into a universal experience. "I don't know if it makes one sad or simply releases the sadness that's in you," Gregory said, equating his book to a blues song. "Misery loves company they say, and I think that knowing that grief is a common experience but also a finite one is an important thing to affirm to people. I know I spent a lot of time being very afraid of death and I'm not anymore. I have a better sense now of what disappears when a person dies but also what continues after they're gone. I miss Patti every day but I know that she would want me to enjoy the rest of my life even if I couldn't do it with her. And so I do. I hope that in the end that A Kiss Before You Go is not thought of as just a sad book but as a life-affirming one too. That's up to the readers, I guess."

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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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