THE FRENCH PAINTER Claude Monet lived and worked at his country home in Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926 at age 96.1 The gardens had been lovingly designed by the painter and were the source of one of his greatest inspirations, Water Lilies (or Nymphéas). Monet painted this series of paintings after sustaining a number of catastrophic losses, including the deaths of his second wife and son and his own failing eyesight. In addition, the carnage and destruction of the First World War would inspire him to paint a particular vision of beauty to restore the spirit of his countrymen after the war and to offer, as Monet described, “an asylum of peaceful meditation in the center of a flowering aquarium.”2
Half a million visitors come to Giverny every year to visit Monet's gardens.3 Last spring, I was among them. For me it was a pilgrimage of sorts. I'd been a psychiatric nurse for 30 years; it was my passion, but not my first love. In an earlier life, I'd studied and taught French.
Throughout my years as a psychiatric nurse, I was able to share “my first love” with a very special patient. As a young man, Mr. K had hoped one day to teach French. He had his first of numerous psychiatric hospitalizations while in college and was never able to fulfill this dream. One dream did come true, however, when he and his wife visited Giverny in 2011. I wanted to experience what Mr. K had seen and felt in Monet's gardens.
Sharing a love of art
When I first met Mr. K in 1988, I worked the night shift. We had long conversations during difficult nights when his anxiety made sleep impossible. I was impressed by his intelligence and breadth of knowledge, as well as his desire to have a meaningful life in spite of a serious mental illness that had curtailed his dreams and aspirations at an early age.
Mr. K had the opportunity to help others become actively engaged in their own recovery while working at a local support center. He worked not only with individual clients but also with other certified peer specialists as a supervisor. He was admired and respected by everyone.
Mr. K had always been interested in art and became a fine painter at the support center's art studio. He also helped others learn to paint. When a second art studio opened in another location, he became its coordinator. This brought him immense satisfaction.
Upon his return from France in 2011, Mr. K began a series of paintings based on photographs he'd taken at Giverny and in Paris. He threw himself into this work and produced remarkable paintings. I think Monet would have been pleased.
When I became a nursing instructor, I invited Mr. K to my orientation class for my mental health nursing course. The students were always impressed by his frank discussion of not only how his illness had affected him, but also how interactions with professionals had influenced him as well.
For several years my undergraduate students would spend a day at the support center, usually with Mr. K in the art studio. About this relationship Mr. K said, “My work with students and peers allowed me to go beyond the self-centeredness of mental illness and the prison of self.” The students would tell me that meeting Mr. K and learning about the impact of mental illness on his life was very meaningful. His talks were always full of humor and brutal honesty, but most of all, charm.
Mr. K died unexpectedly last year of cardiac complications. At his funeral on a cold, snowy day in early February, several spoke of the impact he'd had on their lives. In attendance were not only family and friends but also mental healthcare professionals who'd worked with Mr. K over the years. Monet was there, too, through the presence of Mr. K's paintings reflecting the serene beauty of the gardens of Giverny. I continue to be approached by other nurses who'd cared for him in a variety of settings, recounting how he'd touched their lives through his courage and grace.
My visit to Giverny was bittersweet. I knew that I'd never be able to share my impressions with Mr. K face-to-face. I was fortunate to visit on a sunny May morning with spring flowers in bloom. I felt Mr. K's presence in the movement of the willows across the stillness of the pond where water lilies awaited the warmth of June to blossom. I sensed we'd both found peace in the beauty of Monet's gardens.