Blessings From Heaven

 

Blessings from Heaven

Last September my friend Nancy, got in touch to tell me of the death of her beloved daughter. I was saddened to hear the details of Meghan’s passing. Nancy explained that she wanted to commission me to create the cover art for a book she was writing about Megs. She then went on to tell me of a lucid dream her brother, Charles, experienced after her daughter had passed. In it he envisioned his niece moments after her death. No longer was Megs a 35-year-old woman consumed with cancer, but a healthy nine-year-old. She bounded through the door of Chirup, their summer cottage, and raised her arms in delight as she overlooked the lake. When she realized she had crossed the threshold to the afterlife her joy couldn’t be contained. That’s the image Meghan’s mom wanted illustrated for the cover of her book, Blessings from Heaven. Nancy planned to include all the details of her brother’s heavenly encounter with his niece.

Some may dismiss Charles’s vision as a broken heart trying to heal itself, but I knew better. From what I’ve witnessed, along with sorrow, death always brings miracles. Through her uncle’s dream Meghan’s soul made sure her family knew her suffering was over and that she is free.

I accepted the commission and began gathering details for my illustration. Meghan’s mom had to find photos of her daughter as a child and of Chirup for me to work from. Getting the details of the cottage right were almost as important as getting Megs right. She had such a connection to the vacation dwelling that it was her heart’s desire to spend her final days there.

Megs circa age 9_edited-1

Megs around age nine.

I felt a little apprehensive about making the book cover. I knew what I was doing was important work and wanted it to be perfect. Nancy turned out to be a fabulous art director. When she saw my preliminary sketch, she knew I had to thin and elongate Meghan’s body. She was able to supply me with the minutest of details to make Chirup authentic. She even gave me images of wildflowers that grow in the area to incorporate into the painting. She told me that I had artistic license to place them around the cottage in abundance even though they weren’t there in actuality. The illustration was of heaven after all.

Chirup_edited-1

Chirup

The final art took months to complete. Every day that I sat down to paint, I put on the cancer bracelet that Meghan’s family wore to support her. Having it on my wrist somehow solidified the connection I felt with her. I could feel her vibrant energy. I knew she was doing what she could to help me make the cover of her mom’s book a masterpiece.

When I finally put the finishing touches on the art, I appraised all the detail in the plants around the cottage. I’d spent hours and hours painting those flowers. I found my antique flower dictionary to look up the definitions of the blooms Nancy wanted in the illustration. When I complete a portrait commission if flowers are included, I like to read the meanings behind them. The definitions always somehow tie into my subject’s personalities, struggles and gifts.

I was in awe when I read what the wildflowers Meghan’s mom chose meant:

*The orange day-lilies represent beauty. They describe Nancy’s daughter far beyond the physical.

*Daisies mean simplicity. Megs never was one for too much fuss in her attire or surroundings. She drew much comfort from nature.

*Black-Eyed-Susan’s mean justice. To Meghan’s family and friends her passing seemed so unfair, but in the tapestry of life she left in perfect timing. So many gifts will materialize that wouldn’t have if she had stayed. Megs now has the power to help her loved ones from behind the scenes in ways she never could have while on Earth.

1843 Flower Dictionary_edited-1

My 1843 flower dictionary.

*The final flowers Nancy requested are purple phlox. I got chills when I read that their definition is, ”our souls are united.” It was a clear cut message for Meghan’s family, especially for her son, Tyler. Death could never be strong enough to separate them from her love.

Discovering what the flowers I had painstaking painted symbolized gave me a new understanding of the aphorism “God is in the details.” As I closed my Victorian flower dictionary, I was reminded, once again, how Divine love is woven through everything.

When Nancy learned I’d scheduled my essay to run today, she was thrilled. You see today is her birthday. I had no idea. No one can convince either of us that this isn’t a gift to her, through me, from Meghan. Happy birthday, Nancy.

*Click here to purchase a copy of Blessings from Heaven

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Spread Love Around the World

Jaeden's Angel

Jaeden’s Angel

“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love!”             ~ Hamilton Wright Mabie

This is the first year since 2000 that I haven’t illustrated a Christmas card for the Tim Fix Scholarship Fund. Tim was my sister, Laura, and her husband Bob’s son. He died in a drowning accident in 1996. To give meaning to his passing, his parents formed a scholarship fund in his name. The holiday cards I designed were just one of the ways money was raised for it. My sister was a school social worker in the same district their son grew up in. For years, she sold many cards through her connections in the community. Last May, when Laura retired from her job, we felt like it was time to wind down the Christmas cards, too.

I loved creating the cards in Tim’s memory. I always included an angel in my design. It was also fun selling them. Sales would connect us to people who knew and loved my nephew. The cards always gave us pause to remember him and smile. Knowing that the money collected supported kids we thought Tim would approve of, added to our good feelings.

The absence of a Christmas card for my nephew this year leaves a bit of a hole in my heart. I’ve decided to fill that hole by honoring him in different way. This December, I’m going to give an angel in Tim’s memory to a friend I’ve never met in person and most likely never will. Petrina lives in Malaysia and found me through my blog. She began writing to me because even though we live worlds apart, we still have so much in common. We truly are kindred spirits.

In one email, Petrina confided in me about the loss of her son Jaeden Gabriel. At three years old, her sweet boy was taken from her by a mysterious illness. She sent pictures of him to me. The beauty of her child and the depth of her grief stayed with me. I was pulled to paint a portrait of him. Finding the time for that never happened until I realized that Petrina should be the recipient of Tim’s angel this year. I took a break from a commission to work on a watercolor of Jaeden. It was a joy to paint. In this high holy season of love, I know my portrait will mean so much to her and her family.

So for all of those who love Tim, this year his angel lives in the image above. At the same time, my gift of Jaeden and his heavenly companion travels across the miles to Petrina. For just like love, angels were meant to be shared.

Pictured below are the cards that I created over the years in memory of Tim :

2000

2000

2001

2001

2002

2002

2002

2003

2004

2004

2005

2005

2006

2006

2007

2007

2006

2008

2009

2009

2010

2010

2011

2011

2012

2012

2013

2013

2014

2014

*Click here to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5×7 print!

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bluebirds from Heaven

Looking back at this illustration of Ann and my son Rob, must be where my bluebird connection with her first began.

My 1984 illustration of Ann and my son Rob must be where my bluebird connection with her first began.

“I’m always looking for cosmic rhymes.” – Bono

Today is the anniversary of my younger sister Ann’s death. She died suddenly, of an undetected heart condition on October 9, 2008. It hardy seems possible that she’s been gone for seven years. When she made her transition she left a huge hole in my life. We spoke every day and spent as much time together as we could. The two youngest of unstable parents, we clung to each other growing up. Survivors of a shipwreck of a childhood, there was no one who nurtured and supported my recovery more than her.

Life without Ann was hard. It’s not that I didn’t believe she was in a better place. I just missed our daily connection. I yearned for proof that she was still near me. The summer after she left, my heart ached as I packed for my family’s annual vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. Truthfully, I didn’t much feel like going. A friend had told me about seeing a red cardinal after her father passed in times of trouble or when she missed him. She believed they were sent by her dad to let her know all was well. To give my trip a sense of purpose I asked Ann to send me a bluebird when I was there to let me know she was alright. Although they inhabit the island, I had never seen one. If a bluebird crossed my path while I was there, I decided it would be a sign that she was near.

When we arrived on the island, even its beauty couldn’t fully cheer me up. Everywhere we went my eyes scanned the trees for bluebirds without any luck. When my sister Laura brought me to her friend, folk artist Ashley Medowski’s gallery, I began to rethink the perimeters of how my bluebird would show up. On the gallery wall, with a red sold sticker on it, hung the most enchanting piece of art with a little bluebird on it. It was entitled, The Family Tree. A box with a door, made from a victorian photo album, opened up to a tree. Hanging stairs were attached to it to symbolize our assent to heaven and the rejoining of the loved ones who went before us. Laura knew how much I missed Ann and bought it for me. That gift opened me up to being flexible as to how the bluebird was going to manifest on my trip. Real or fashioned by a human hand, it didn’t matter. I accepted it as an assurance from Ann.

The Family Tree

The Family Tree

Later that week, I went to visit my friend, artist, Margot Datz. She wanted me to see an image she had painted with me in mind. Inspired by the profundity of my loss she had named it, My Blue Heart. I couldn’t believe when I saw a bluebird holding a heart in its beak at the center of its design. Margot knew about my younger sister’s death but not about my quest for bluebird signs. I’ve glossed over many coincidences in my life, but it was hard for me to believe this was just happenstance. It had to come from Ann, through Margot’s paintbrush, to me. Today the painting hangs in my studio next to my drawing table.

My Blue Heart

My Blue Heart

Me with Margo that summer.

Me with Margot that summer.

After I returned from Martha’s Vineyard, bluebirds were on my radar. It seemed like everywhere I looked I saw one and was reminded of Ann. I had let go of any hope of ever seeing a real eastern bluebird in my suburb of Chicago. Like me, no one I knew had ever seen one in our area.

That all changed Sept. 29, 2014. That day I was feeling discouraged about launching my children’s books and said a prayer for help. Not a minute later, I glanced out the window and saw what looked like an eastern bluebird! I couldn’t believe it. I went and grabbed binoculars to make sure it wasn’t just wishful thinking. Looking through them, I could clearly see a small cobalt blue bird with an orange breast eating seeds under our bird feeder. Then, as if to clarify my vision, it flew toward my window and soared away. Ann, one of my biggest supporters, had to let me know that everything was going to be all right.

Of course there is no way to prove my bluebird assurances scientifically. Some may say my sightings are a product of an overactive imagination, but I know what I know. As the years move on, I no longer yearn for Ann like I did. Over time, other relationships in my life have deepened. The hole has been filled. I am at peace. I’ve found that no matter how much faith you have there is always an adjustment period when someone you love dies. Missing their physical presence takes time to come to terms with and be healed.

“Death is just life’s next big adventure.” – J. K. Rowling

Today, I’m happy for Ann. She is still with me, behind the scenes, supporting my journey. I know she is experiencing a world my mind can’t even begin to comprehend. I wish her Godspeed on the new adventures she traverses. She never was one for sitting still.

*Click here to sign up for email updates from my studio

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Rescued By a Rescue Dog

Quigley, our funny little cattle dog.

Quigley, our funny little cattle dog.

It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them, and every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are. – Anonymous

Last week it was time to put our Australian Blue Heeler to sleep. It was a difficult decision to make because Quigley was a part of our family. It was hard to imagine life without him. He was approaching 15 and in the past year his health had been steadily declining. It became apparent in his last few days that his body was shutting down. I didn’t want him to experience an ounce of suffering, so I prayed for guidance to know when it was his time to say goodbye. When that knowing came, I talked it over with the vet and made an appointment to bring him in the next day.

As hard as it was to let Quigley go, my husband, Bob, and I knew it was the right thing to do. Quig came to us through a shelter after he had been dumped on a country road. Knowing that he had been abandoned, I vowed to him that I would take care of him. Putting him down was my final way of doing that.

Quigley, on the day we put him down, spelling the flowers one more time.

Quigley, on the day we put him down, smelling the flowers one last time.

Quigley was the best dog we ever had. You don’t realize how much a pet fills your life until you experience the hollow place they leave when they’re gone. Now I yearn for the wonderful, little things about him.

I miss hearing his toenails on the floors.

I miss him laying by my feet.

I miss how he took his leash in his mouth when it was time for a walk.

I miss seeing him run for cover whenever he saw a fly.

I miss how he loved to chase squirrels.

I miss watching him pull my son by the sleeve to the cabinet where the dog treats were kept.

I miss hearing him jump off the couch as I entered the room (he wasn’t allowed on the furniture).

I miss seeing his little mug watching me through the window after I walked out the door.

I missing watching him leap into the air to grab a frisbee mid-flight.

I miss him falling on his back to have his belly scratched.

I miss him bringing in the morning paper.

Quig, always a good sport, let me photograph him for this illustration for my picture book, "Glory in the Morning."

I immortalized Quig in an  illustration in my picture book, “Glory in the Morning.”

I got Quigley to hold this pose by holding a treat up. He would do anything for a cookie.

I got Quigley to hold this pose by holding a treat up.  He would do anything for a cookie.

After Quigley was euthanized, Bob and I were heartbroken. We thought that maybe in a year we’d be ready to get another pet. Our hearts should be mended by then. But without our cattle dog, our house is too quiet.

That evening our son calls to check on me and suggests we get another dog. “Why wait?” he says. “There are so many dogs that need to be loved.” His words convinced me to look up the Australian Cattle Dog Rescue of Illinois. Even though we just put Quigley down a few hours ago, I filled out an on-line application. I thought finding the perfect dog would be a long process, so I’d better get started.

Not too long after hitting send, I received an email from the president of the rescue. She informed me they would be having a dog meet and greet at a Pet Smart not too far from us the next day. She also told me of a red heeler named Maxwell that they had just gotten in.

I decided to go to the meet and greet but not tell Bob. He was so adamant about not getting another dog for awhile. Besides when I saw a photo of Max I felt no connection to him. Shortly after I arrived at the Pet Smart, a lady walked in with the the cutest, little Australian Blue Heeler on a leash. Not Maxwell, another pup. When I went over to pet him, I learned she was his foster caregiver and had brought him for the rescue. When I heard that, I was sure he was our dog. I already loved him. His name is Gary and he is a stray from Ohio. He’s 8 months old, the same age Quig was when he came to us. I knew Gary was a gift. I proceeded to fill out the papers to adopt him. I’ll be able to bring him home in a few weeks after he is neutered and microchipped.

On my ride back home I kept thinking, what have I done? I really should have talked it over with Bob before I adopted another dog. I felt such a sense of urgency to do it though. I knew Gary needed us. He was ours.

That evening I was apprehensive about what Bob’s response would be when I told him about our new pet. And what did the man, who was so certain we should wait to get another dog, say?  “Why didn’t you bring Gary home with you?”

Meet Gary

Meet Gary

*Click here to sign up for email updates from my studio

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Remembering Ryan Cruz Saldana

Don't Lose Heart

On May 2, 2014 Jacqui and Dan Saldana lost their three-year-old son, Ryan. Although I never met him, a piece of my heart broke off when he died. I learned about Ryan, while he still graced the planet, from my niece Molly. For a time, she worked with his mother at the Madewell store in Santa Monica, California. I began reading Jacqui’s blog, Baby Boy Bakery and following her on Instagram where she shared recipes and the adventures of being Ryan’s mom. His adorableness, wrapped in red curls, was irresistible.

Last May, Ryan was struck and killed by a truck while playing outside of his cousin’s home in Alta Loma. An unfathomable loss that no parent should ever have to face. Ryan’s death sparked a social media outpouring of love and support for his family. The well wishes were posted with the hashtag #RedBalloonsForRyan, which was begun by family friends. Red balloons were chosen as a symbol for Ryan because he loved red and balloons. His parents planned to release them heavenward during their little boy’s funeral service.

Since that time, Jacqui has shared her journey of healing and hope on her blog and Instagram. After learning about what the Saldana’s where going through last December, Ellen Degeneres had Jacqui on her show to help get them through the holidays. The talk show host told Jacqui,“I know what you’ve lost is something you can’t ever explain or imagine. Know that you are helping a lot of people with your blog. Continue writing your blog and continue knowing I’m sending you love all the time.”

After seeing Jacqui on The Ellen Show, I felt inspired to send her love in a tangible way. What if I did a watercolor of Ryan as a gift for his parents? But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get in touch with them. Still I felt called to do it. The whisperings of Ryan urged me on. Why not paint his portrait anyway? I could have it published with an essay about the anniversary of his death. I knew somehow it would get to Jacqui and Dan. When a parent loses a child, their greatest fear is that the world will move on and forget about their son or daughter. I wanted to make sure they knew that wasn’t going to happen to Ryan Cruz Saldana.

So today, you are seeing and reading my remembrance of Jacqui and Dan’s little angel. Believe me when I say I didn’t create this alone.

Don’t Lose Heart

Remember…

I am not gone.

I am closer than ever

I watch you every day.

It takes time to heal.

I can feel your love.

I smile when you smile.

I laugh when you laugh

Balloons are love notes from me. 

I will be your “little man” forever. 

Remember, I have what you always wanted for me.  

I am happy. 

I am free.

I am whole.

Remember, I love you.

*Join the outpouring of love and support for Ryan on social media with the hashtag #RedBalloonsForRyan

*Click here to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free 5×7 print!

This story also appeared on MariaShriver.com — THE most inspiring place on the web.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

American Hope

god-bless-america_edited-1

“Children are hopes” – Novalis

I began work on the above illustration in 1999 through the advice of my then agent. It was all over the news at the time, that an immigrant family had named their newborn “America” in hopes of not being deported. The baby’s parents desperately wanted to give their child a better life than the one they had fled. My rep thought it would be a great way to capitalize on the event and draw attention to my art. I am a follower of directions and immediately began work on the illustration. Shortly after that, I parted ways with my rep, realizing we didn’t share the same vision for marketing my work. I didn’t abandon my drawing, though. I finished it knowing the baby wrapped in the flag wasn’t specific to one child but symbolized all of America’s children.

“See, there’s the land of America…which you have to defend. But there’s also the idea of America. America is more than just a country, it’s an idea.” – Bono

True, our nation’s physical beauty is vast. And although magnificent, it’s not what makes America, America. My ancestors didn’t leave County Cork, Ireland, during the potato famine to find a more striking landscape. What brought them here were the intangibles. They were under the thumb of English landlords and came to a new world that promised freedom for their families. Freedom meant opportunity and most of all hope. And like their sons and daughters, it must be cherished and protected at all costs.

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”Ronald Reagan

On June 9, 2014 a boy from the village of Mokena, Illinois, where I live, was killed in Afghanistan. Private Aaron Toppen was only nineteen and died serving the country he loved. He left behind a mother, sisters, a girlfriend and countless others. With him he took a piece of all our hearts. He was laid to rest in a casket wrapped in stars, stripes and the love of our community. In my mind’s eye, I can see his spirit joining the ranks of a heavenly guard appointed to keep watch over our children. Once a soldier, always a soldier.

pam-and-aaron-toppen1_edited-1

Aaron Toppen’s mother adjusts a medal before her son’s Turning Blue Ceremony.

Mokena honors Aaron Toppen

Mokena welcomes Aaron home.

*Click here to sign up for my inspiring every other Wednesday email

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

The Big Picture: Perspective is Everything

The Big Picture - Version 2“I’m like the painter with his nose to the canvas, fussing over details. Gazing from a distance, the reader sees the big picture.” – Author Steven Saylor

My sister Ann passed away, without warning, on the morning of October 9, 2008. An undiagnosed heart condition, hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, took her life. How could that be? She was only 51! She all but sparkled she was so alive. Her death didn’t seem possible. Being thoroughly devoted to each other, I had no idea how I was going to live without her.

For the first ten years of our marriages, I had the luxury of Ann only living a mile from me. We got to raise our children together and see each other whenever we liked. In 1998, her husband took a job three hours south of where we lived. I felt the sting of our separation even before she moved. When what I dreaded came to pass, I was shocked that our relationship only deepened. Even though we no longer got to be with each other in person, thanks to cell phones, we were connected more than ever.

Ann and I had gotten into the habit of speaking to each other every morning and at times throughout the day, being detached from her was unfathomable to me. What would I do without her to run every aspect of my life by? There was such a hole with her gone. The minute I learned she had departed, I heard a voice say, “It’s time to stretch.” My soul knew it was a chance for me to face the world standing on my own two feet. The comfort of leaning on Ann had run its course.

After the shock of her passing lifted, the grief settled in. I went from deep sadness to despair. Worse than my loss was witnessing what her husband and children were going through. Their broken-heartedness pulled me even further into misery.

As the months moved on, slowly, slowly, I began to heal. I still remember the first day that went by where I wasn’t consumed with sorrow. As I lay in bed that night, a little pang of guilt pulled me back. Did my happiness mean I was being disloyal?  And what about Ann’s children? I began to feel what I imagined their anguish to be. I was sinking.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances.”- William Shakespeare

And then she came to me. Ann was in the form of an angel with wings. She reached down, lifted me by the hand and deposited me on a cloud next to her. If my body didn’t literally feel the whoosh of being pulled upward, I would have thought I was dreaming. As we sat, she put her arm around me and pointed down to Earth. She told me that whenever I felt myself slipping to look at the big picture. I knew exactly what she meant. I shouldn’t let myself become absorbed in the drama on our planet. In the big picture, nothing had changed. She had never left any of her loved ones’ sides. It was time for her to move on, but nothing could keep us from her love. She indicated to me that life would be so much easier if I wore my trials like a loose garment and didn’t allow myself to become engrossed in them. When looked at from a higher perspective, the sufferings we go through don’t seem so overwhelming. Ann’s insight was a gift from one who knew me so well. It proved to be the missing link in the healing of my many of struggles. That experience marked the beginning of my acceptance of what I had considered a loss. Sometimes I still ache for the physicality of Ann being with me, but I no longer resist these feelings. I simply let them move through me. They are part of being human. When I get to the other side of them, I realize nothing has changed…..not really.

I love hearing from you! I’ve heard so many comforting stories about people who have died and reached out to those they left behind. A great book on the subject is Hello from Heaven. Have any of you had an experience with someone you love who has passed away?

Marianne and Kate

My cousin’s Marianne and Kate modeled to help bring my vision to life.

Click here to sign up for email updates from my studio

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

 

 

 

Home is where the heart is. And the heart never really leaves home.

home-for-the-holidays-blue-line

The arms of love encompass you with your present, your past, your future, the arms of love gather you together.   -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The concept for my above christmas card, Home for the Holidayssprang from my daughter’s imagination. Fresh from college, Bridget was nannying for a baby named Jack at the time. She was crazy about him and thought up the design so her little muse could be included. My son Brian, found the model for the angel pulling the tree. He knew Marissa’s uncle and thought she was one of most endearing little girls he’d ever met.

I was a little leery about a holiday card that focused on loved ones returning home. What about people separated by miles that for some reason couldn’t make it back? I thought how painful it would be for those who couldn’t  be together because of war or worse yet death. That year when Christmas came my own daughter would be halfway across the country in Idaho. I could already feel the sting.

Difficult as it was, my daughter’s move taught me something. I learned being separated by the miles had little or no baring on our relationship. We were closer than ever. Computers and cell phones brought me to the realization that being with Bridget in person is wonderful but only one aspect of our love. Our hearts were connected even though we were miles apart.

In 2009, when my sister died suddenly, it took that notion to a whole different level. The first Christmas without her was brutal. We were so much a part of one another it felt as if she had been ripped from me. As the years passed, I’ve settled into life without her in the flesh. I’ve adjusted to having a different kind of relationship with her. It took working through the grief to get to this point. Even though we are seemingly apart, we are closer than ever, just like with Bridget.

For awhile our souls inhabit these bodies, but our true selves are connected at a higher level. Real separation from anyone we love is not possible for they are entwined in our hearts. So in this season of joy and throughout the new year, I wish you the luxury of knowing all your loved ones are home. And in fact, they never left.

Angel-Eyed Marissa

My model, angel-eyed Marissa

Bridget and Jack way back when.

Bridget and Jack way back when.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com