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  • Street fighter, heroin addict, felon, survivor, changeling. My friend. No stranger meeting ever happened. Three years ago I was battling through my third round of chemo. I was a changeling...exhausted, sick, bald, withdrawn...miserable. I remember praying, "please, God, life or death. Just pick one." One night, about 3 a.m. actually, I woke up with an absolute obsessive need to draw. Faces. I needed to draw faces. I searched for paper and a pencil like a deranged woman possessed. And I drew. For hours. And it didn't stop. I saw faces in every surface; moving, shifting, bulging, sometime almost like a rolling boil of images fighting to surface so I could see them. The more I would draw the more terrified I became. Perhaps the chemicals meant to kill the cancer were killing my brain. My Google search looked something like this: people with no art skills who start drawing obsessively due to illness. Result: Tommy McHugh, Birkenhead England, stroke survivor.

    Tommy's journey started after a massive stroke robbed him of his memory and left him speaking in rhyme and painting so obsessively that he covered every inch of every wall, ceiling, and floor in his home with wild, colorful, paintings. All containing faces. Hundreds and hundreds of them. When he wasn't painting he was sculpting or carving rocks. The harsh life he knew before his stroke was gone. What replaced it was a gentle soul with a ferocious artistic compulsion. I still can't believe he answered my email. It was so pathetic; so thinly veiled in what I thought was a good attempt at a professional communication. What I received back was an email that was better than any medication, tonic, elixir, that was ever prescribed and it changed my life. He understood. He knew exactly what I was doing and feeling. He wanted to see my drawings and paintings. For three years we conversed via email and ultimately Facebook so we could share our latest creations. We shared our art. I sent him a painting that now hangs in a cancer treatment center in Liverpool. He cut out a piece of his living room wall that now hangs in mine.

    Tommy died last week. Cancer...fucking cancer. He told me he wasn't afraid after he was diagnosed. We agreed that whomever went first, the other would be there to greet the other upon arrival since we never met in person. We would send the other a sign that we had arrived and were not far away. He remembered and he kept his word. He always encouraged me to try sculpting. I was intimidated. I never did. I kept to my graphite, paper and oil paints. Late last week my husband called me from work to tell me he met the coolest guy who had come into his store. A sculptor. A teacher. He teaches a free sculpting class every Thursday evening in a rented hall at a local church.

    I took my first sculpting class last Thursday. The same day as Tommy's funeral. He kept his word.

    If you are interested in Tommy's story:

    Photo of Tommy McHugh in his living room by Gianni Bianchini
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