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TideWriters Tales

Celebrating the Past, Present & Future

Who Is Don McCauley? Why can’t I buy his art?

By Janet Abbott Fast

I walk into the room with artwork on display at the Richmond County Fair. A painting of a woman with grey hair and grey mists in the background draws me in. The hair on the back of my neck rises and I get goose bumps. Instantly I know this is a painting of an Alzheimer’s patient. I know it was painted by my friend, Don McCauley.

Don McCauley, in his studio, in the assisted living facility,
where he lives in his mind, not the wheelchair.
Janet Abbott Fast photo.

Another painting catches my eye. This one is more humourous. Five guys are loafing in a fishing boat, but seem to be more interested in drinking beer than fishing. The title is “fishing?”
When I approached Don about writing this article, at first he was reluctant. He relented when we agreed that it might inspire others in similar circumstances to realize that life doesn’t end when obstacles are thrown in life’s path.

“Enjoy every day and make the most of it,” is his philosophy.

I first met Don when he came to our Rappatomac Writers group at Rappahannock Community College, on the Warsaw campus. He was a retired engineer who wanted to exercise the other side of his brain and leave technical matters behind.

Alzheimer’s, Watercolor. Although the artist’s wife had Alzheimer’s, this is more a generic patient than a portrait. The delusions emerging from the fog are “real,” however.

His wife, Marie, had Alzheimer’s disease and he retired five years early to care for her. They owned a summer cottage in Dunnsville on the Rappahannock River. When they returned to Virginia from their home in California, the first order of business was to add heat and winterize the drafty house.

Next, with Marie’s help where possible, Don built an extension on the house designed to deal with Marie’s declining health. It included a large room and bathroom with a tub and separate hot water heater. The room was large enough for a hospital bed and medical equipment at one end. There was a small studio for Don at the other end. Don began painting because it was something he could do while staying in the room and keeping an eye on Marie.

Don’s doctor ordered him to get help and get out of the house or he would put his own health in jeopardy making him unable to care for Marie. So Don found a practical nurse who came in part time to relieve him. He began to play golf, write and paint. He wrote a series of articles for Chesapeake Style about the progression of Marie’s disease.

The couple liked to travel. When they retired from California in 1985 Marie was in good shape physically. They were able to hike and camp out and they traveled more than 13,000 miles. Two years later, on another long trip they stayed in motels more frequently. By 1989, on a third long trip, Marie could not be trusted to go to the ladies room by herself, so they only camped in uni-sex campgrounds.

Don says, “Before we could complete that trip, Marie flipped out, accusing me of leaving her in the desert to die.” They had to cut the trip short, but they had made it to Alaska. Over the years Marie’s travels decreased from day trips to Richmond, to walks on the beach and finally, to being completely bed bound.

High tide at Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia.

Six children of their own weren’t enough. Marie was very compassionate and generous with any child or young adult in trouble, before signs of Alzheimer’s appeared. They welcomed 25 or 30 stray children who needed help. One came home after school with their oldest daughter and stayed four years. Another became their legal foster child. Much later that foster child married one of their sons and became their beautiful and caring daughter-in-law. Don says, “One gem in a sluice pan of gravel isn’t bad.”

One day when Marie had regressed into herself, the humming stage, Don brought her to my home. Marie’s dark hair had not one speck of grey. Her blue eyes were unseeing as she hummed and walked around. Don had to watch carefully to prevent her from walking into a tree or stumbling over furniture.

In their home he removed most of the low profile furniture, but Marie fell anyway. Many of her falls were harmless, but once she fell and broke her hip. In the hospital doctors warned that she might not live. They stabilized her condition and waited almost a week before performing a simple hip pining.

Later she fell and fractured an elbow. Again, not serious. When she fell and broke the other hip, more complex surgery was required, involving a steel plate and a bolt into the hip joint.

Marie’s Alzheimer’s was in the final stages and she was not eating. The doctors told Don to take her home to die—that she’d die within two weeks. They didn’t count on two factors; Marie was a tough old bird and Don was determined to take care of her. The first day home he managed to get one cup of yogurt in her, and gradually built up until she was eating again.

Folks couldn’t understand why Don took care of Marie all those years, through every imaginable stage of Alzheimer’s. She even tried to kill him, but he refused to send her to a nursing home.

“What nursing home could afford to spend hours feeding her a meal,” he says. “I could never give back all the things she gave me.” After 17 years of retirement taking care of Marie, Don developed an inoperable cancer and required chemotherapy. There was no one to care for Marie 24 hours a day, so she was placed in a nursing home. She died within a week. Don told me he couldn’t cry—all of his emotion was used up, and in one sense, he was glad to see her suffering end.

The chemotherapy ruined Don’s body. He told me he is living in a different body than the one he had used for 77 years. He is confined to a wheelchair, but insists, “I don’t live in a wheelchair. I live in my mind. The wheelchair is merely a conveyance.” Several falls convinced him he needed to move to an assisted living facility, where he is today. He is on oxygen most of the time and he sleeps a lot. “If the door is open, and I’m asleep, come on in and wake me up,” he says cheerfully.

All of Don’s paintings were in oil before he moved to the facility. Because fumes and clean up are more difficult to deal with there, he switched to watercolors. He quickly became a fan. He crawls around on the floor in order to mat and frame his paintings. All of his paintings, oil or watercolor, mean something to him. They are never copies from magazines, he emphasizes.

The Bridge Club, Watercolor.
The back of the artist’s head playing with three
other Assisted Living residents. The youngest lady is 91.

There are outdoor landscapes, indoor landscapes, lots of boats, scenes adapted from old black and white photographs. There is a nighttime view of Hardee’s from his window; a watercolor of the bridge club he joined—his back to the viewer. Don doesn’t sell his paintings—offers are refused. Occasionally he gives one to a family member, or friends. One painting, showing Marie in front of a cascading stream, hangs in her doctor’s office.

Every now and then I see Don in the grocery store or drug store near his assisted living home. He fills a hand basket on his lap as he scans the shelves from his electric wheelchair. Occasionally he may ask some one to reach a high item. Mostly he manages it himself and gets great pleasure out of his little trips. He buys fruit and sugar-free candy. Sometimes he yearns to cook a favorite meal and buys the ingredients. There is a country kitchen for the residents of the facility.

“I have to carefully plan my time for any activity, because my energy level is so low.” Then he confides, with a smile, “I’m painting oils with a pallet knife now.”

Like most young men at the time, Don joined the military during World War II, as soon as he was old enough. He became a crew member of a B-29 flying bombing missions over Japan from a base on Guam. In 1945 their B-29 crashed upon returning to the base. The front end of the plane was a pile molten metal. Don and his best friend Max were in the tail section that flipped off and kept on going for the length of a football field. He and Max always wondered why they were spared.

For more than 60 years Don has considered each day to be a gift. Max’s wife had a stroke and he has been taking care of her for years. Just maybe, they were spared to care for their wives.

In February and March 2007, twenty-two of Don’s paintings were on exhibit in Heathsville at the Northumberland County library. The cover of the May issue of Chesapeake Style was also one of Don’s paintings.


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