Even Zebras Get the Blues

by Lesta Bertoia

My friend Fran, an open-hearted, quick-witted, self-proclaimed but lovable neurotic, is an artist, like myself. She met her husband Guy in high school some forty-plus years ago and now has three grown daughters. Last fall, Guy, who was also her best friend, was killed while riding his motorcycle in a head-on collision with an SUV driven by a young woman. He died instantly.

Knowing that Fran, in her state of incredulous shock and unfathomable loss, would be inundated with grieving and concerned family and friends, I decided to wait a few days before contacting her. Doing so was on my mind every day, but I was not consciously thinking of her when I woke up at 2:30 am, four days later, driven to start a painting.

The images that emerged on the canvas during the next three hours were of a man and woman, separated by half an arm’s-length but connected heart to heart, flying together over a tiny blue orb. Beneath them (they appeared to be viewed from above) was the entrance to a light-filled tunnel. Ahead of them the tunnel opened into a widening empty space. Flowing back from the head of the man was a swirl of energy that struck me as resembling the head of a zebra, and I found myself turning the canvas over and writing on the back, “Even zebras get the blues.”

I left the canvas on the easel and went back to sleep for a few hours, and when I returned later in the morning, I saw the painting from across the room and gasped. Formed within the outlines of the two people was Fran’s distinctively heart-shaped face, her eyes downcast, her mouth contracted in sorrow.

“Oh my gosh,” I whispered, feeling something prickle through me. “Guy, if you’re here,” I said out loud, for the first time finding myself consciously and specifically requesting that I be used for a channel through my art, “come through. If you have messages for Fran…” Instantly I squeezed some white acrylic paint onto the palette, dabbed a narrow brush into it, and didn’t know if my eyes were open or closed as the brush pulled my hand to the empty space above the flying couple and squiggled around for a few seconds. After I dropped the brush into the jar of water, I looked at the canvas, staring through sudden tears at Guy’s face in miniature, the familiar tiny smile beneath his mustache, the upturned eyebrows, and an all-too-typical wave of his hand from beside his cheek. “Okay,” I breathed, barely grasping the full impact of what was happening, “if there’s anything you want to communicate in words, Guy, please make use of me, right now. I’m open.”

I grabbed the marker and wrote down what I heard him say on the back of the canvas. “Tell her I love her. Tell them all. God, you know?” “I’m not that far away.” “Fly with me.”

It wasn’t until days later that Fran was ready to have me and a mutual friend visit. She fell into my arms and cried softly. Then she pulled back and asked, “What’s this?” about the painting I’d brought into her house. “Fran, Guy is still around,” I said.

“I think so, too,” she said. “I saw him in the doorway that night. He was crying. But maybe it was just a dream. Or maybe I’m going crazy. I feel crazy. But he was crying because he didn’t want to leave.”

“He hasn’t left,” I told her. I explained what had happened as I showed her her own face on the canvas, and his.

“It’s Guy!” She held the canvas with both hands and kissed his face. I told her about the messages on the back, and as she read them, she suddenly held her heart and staggered to a chair, tears flowing. ” ‘Fly with me?!’ On our wedding day we gave one another a plaque – it was a silly joke of a gift, some airline motto – that said ‘Come fly with me.’ On our wedding day!”

It wasn’t only Fran who let herself begin to believe that Guy was still around. Her three daughters no longer wondered if it was okay for their mother to find comfort in talking with their father. Other messages came through from other friends. They came through in songs that almost seemed to have been written by him for Fran. Punctuating the undulations of grief, anger, and agony that naturally arose from what still felt like an amputation, a growing acceptance of continuity began to prevail. But neither Fran nor her daughters could make any sense, Fran told me later, of that one phrase on the back of the painting, “Even zebras get the blues.” Her daughters had even Googled it in hopes of finding some clue to its relevance, and I, meanwhile, somewhat overcome by the privilege of having been made use of as so clear a channel, had neglected to make a distinction between that first phrase and the messages I’d specifically requested from Guy.

“Lesta, did you hear what happened?” a mutual friend asked me over the phone seven months later. “Fran wants to tell you herself, I know, but I just have to share this much with you. Her daughter was at an art show, and she saw this painting of a zebra, and she read the name of the artist, and, are you ready for this? It was done by the young woman who was driving the vehicle that killed Guy.”

I was flooded with an inexpressible wave of comprehension and gratitude. It wasn’t just the phrase that made sense. It was the whole Universe. I shared awe-inspired tears with Fran over the phone as she confided, “We’ve all been on this weird high. This is so mind-boggling.” She related the details of her daughter’s staggering discovery and their subsequent decision. Katie is a student counselor at the same high school where the seventeen-year-old driver of the SUV (she had been driving for only two weeks) is a senior. Katie had been purposely avoiding the girl, still acutely feeling her own grief and anger, but was in the hall speaking with another counselor when the senior stopped to speak briefly with the other woman. “I’m sorry about that,” the other counselor said afterwards, fully aware of the reason for Katie’s conflicted emotions, but adding, “She’s having a really rough time of it. She’s been cutting herself.” Katie couldn’t manage getting involved, she had enough to deal with. She turned and found herself walking past a student art exhibition. Apparently the assignment had been to depict animals. Noticing a zebra on a blue background, she glanced at the name of the artist, which at that moment only fueled her need to distance herself. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the hall that she mentally slapped her own forehead. “Oh my God! It’s a ZEBRA!”

Fran and Katie have decided to do something that they couldn’t even imagine considering before. They want to meet with seventeen-year-old Brooke. They want to tell her they don’t blame her. They want the healing process to extend itself to someone whom they feel should not be blaming herself. And, if she’s open to it, they want to tell her why.

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