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Sept 14, 2022

grieving Van Gogh

Erin McKenzie

She ordered sunflowers for the funeral, with bright petals as plentiful as years lost, and when the day of the service came, she stood in front of them, unmoving and determined to find the answers to everything (anything) in their stalks. She stared at them while too many people told her how sorry they were for her, and if she needed anything, to call.


They did not leave their numbers.


She stared at them long after the service ended and the mourners left. If she stared long enough, she would commit every perfect petal to memory. 


Eventually, the petals matched the fresh bruises from the impact of the accident and the way the sunlight stretched over the now-empty side of the bed, and the only thing she could think of was that Van Gogh had been painting his own bruised soul as flowers, like he could convince someone to love it when he couldn’t. 


She declined a ride home, wanting to be alone and swearing she was fine to drive, even in light of what happened. And she was fine, for a couple of blocks, until a green light turned to yellow and she had to pull over and force herself to breathe. She stared at that light, turned red and now green again, and had stared at those flowers for so long that they had become part of her, growing between her ribs and in the empty space in her lungs, planting seeds in her heart and crowding her nervous system while everything slowed around her.

There was a story she’d heard once, years ago, that Van Gogh swallowed a tube of yellow lead paint, of poison, creating a contradiction he hoped would save his life. He hoped to fill his insides with happiness and to drown his sorrows in the only way a suffering artist knew how: with their medium. The story had been proven false on the whole. If happiness was what he sought, it was only that the result of the method might bring him some kind of emptiness. Sometimes, she was learning very quickly, there was little difference. 


She liked the untrue version better, though, thinking that if someone so brilliant as Van Gogh could reach for an idea so destructive with the goal of making himself happy, maybe it wasn’t so absurd that she thought painting the bathroom yellow would ease the ache of the one she lost. She could paint a bathroom so bright that the flowers growing in her chest would have somewhere else to go. 


It had to be yellow.


It was the color Van Gogh reached for when there was nothing left.

Erin McKenzie is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles. In addition to online publications, she has been published in two traveling exhibits, "Love Letters in Light" and "Messengers of Memory." She spends her spare time trying to turn into a mermaid, donates photography to military families, is a total space nerd, and is currently working on her first novel.

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