Sometimes people touch you in the oddest ways. Not when you are expecting it, not when you are wanting to be touched. It just happens.
When we were living in eastern Mass, Mark came home from his farm adventures one day to tell me that a man had appeared at the side of the sheep pasture with a border collie. His name was Dr. MacGregor and his dog’s name was Skye. He wanted to see if Skye was interested in sheep. Mark, being the kind shepherd that he was and always will be, said, “Sure, come on in and see what she does.” This became a habit - Dr. MacGregor and Skye visiting the sheep and Mark obliging.
I only knew Dr. MacGregor and Skye from afar and from what Mark told me. He was a retired surgeon who had moved to a small home at the bottom of the hill. He was somewhere in his 70’s and passionate about his first Border Collie, his wife and family, and his life. He was a decorated WWII Naval surgeon, who saved many people’s lives not only with his medical talent but also with amazing recovery efforts somewhere off the coast of Europe. He came back to the U.S. to be with the wonderful woman he left named Tucker. He became a father of four children and grandfather of many. He was the Chief of Surgery at our local hospital. He traveled to foreign countries to help people who didn't have proper medical care. When he and Tucker were in their late 70’s, they got a Border Collie puppy they named Skye. He raised ducks for Skye to herd. He and Tucker took her on long walks. They even wrote a book about her.
One day he came into my life. I had been featured in a local newspaper article about a show of my paintings and a television feature. He watched the t.v. feature and called me shortly after it. He loved my work. I invitied him to a local showing of my oil paintings at A Bottle of Bread, a great local restaurant in Shelburne Falls. As the “opening” began, he and Tucker breezed through the show as quick as the wind, looking carefully at each painting and eschewing the other guests. I welcomed them but they left quickly.
I got a phone call the next day. Would I paint a portrait of him and his dog Skye? He said he loved my colors and the texture of my work. He wanted one of my paintings to look at for his 87th birthday. I told him to take some photos and I would see what I could do.
One cold winter day, he called me and said he had the photos ready. I said, “Come on up.” He arrived at our farmhouse on a cold winter day, black and white photos in hand. He didn’t exactly arrive – he bounded in – full of energy and enthusiasm. Mark and I were enjoying a fire in the fireplace (I think this may be the only time that ever happened on a weekday), I was knitting, he was reading. We spent awhile with him, talking about his life and his dog. He was wearing a handknit Icelandic sweater he had purchased in Iceland. He and Tucker were still travelling all over the world – skiing, scuba diving, biking, and more. I thought to myself – “Oh, to be so active and live such a productive, full, and happy, successful life.”
His painting had to be 9” x 12” to fit in a certain spot above his computer in his home office. I imagined the room full of certificates of accomplishment – medical school, naval bravery, chief of surgery of the local hospital…. Pictures of family, old dogs. The memories that a man of 86 years might have squeezed into a small space. My painting would be amongst it all. I was intrigued, flattered, and anxious.
I worked on the oil painting for about five months. It wasn’t easy for me – the format was very small and I couldn’t be loose. I had to paint eyes – his and Skye’s - not one of my strengths. There was lots of fine detail. I was doing the best I could, giving it my own spin. I knew Dr. MacGregor loved his Scottish ancestry and had been to the highlands many times. I researched tartan plaids. I dressed him in a modern Scottish Macgregor tartan and used the antque Macgregor tartan on the wall. After several attempts, I came up with what I pronounced "done" and called him. He came up and gave me my check and he took his painting.
I passed their house several times a week. I wondered how my painting was. Was he happy with it? I never heard from him again. Not long after, I found out that his wife of over 60 years, Tucker, had been diagnosed with cancer. Their travels were over. Dr. MacGregor was caring for her, in his totally focused way – knowing what he had to do, and making it as easy for her as possible. I drove by their house several times a week - my heart aching for what they were going through.
This Easter, Mark, Julia and I went to my mom’s for Easter. We picked up the paper at our mailbox and brought it to NJ. It wasn’t until Saturday morning that Mark noticed that Tucker had died. We would miss the service. We weren’t close by any means. But I felt connected to them after painting Dr. MacGregor for all those days, trying to represent him in oil as the larger than life man he was. As I applied the layers of paint, I had fantacized about his wonderful life with his beautiful, vivacious wife – they were still totally in love after 62 years. It was such a great love story.
We came home later in the week and went about our daily business. The next Saturday, we opened the paper again and there it was – Dr. MacGregor had died. One week to the day that Tucker had died, he died also. I was dumbfounded. I called a neighbor. He said he died from advanced leukemia but had never told a soul about it. His health deteriorated quickly after she passed. He had put his all into making her comfortable. And then he slipped away – his job done. Skye had died two months before Tucker. It was the end of an era on our street, in our lives.
I imagine he and she on a star together somewhere far away continuing their happy life full of love for life and each other in another place.
I wonder what will happen to the painting I agonized so much over. I hope he was happy with it for the short time he had it. I’ll never know. It’s funny - sweaters I knit, paintings I paint, meals I cook – they all disappear quickly. But memories – good memories of good people living good lives, live on. I am so happy Dr. MacGregor came into my life and left a mark on it. He will never know what he meant to me – he gave me a chance to create a piece of art for him but more than that I learned about passion for life. He wanted to write a book about Skye so he did it and self-published it. He wanted to help others in poor health in foreign countries, so he left his safe American job and did it. He followed his passions in whatever he did. He and his example will remain with me forever.