BAR HARBOR — During the months her ex-husband was dying of cancer in her living room, Emily Bracale would often illustrate the events of each day — doctor visits, conversations with friends, signing paperwork — in a journal.
“That was my grieving process,” said the artist/author at home in her Bar Harbor studio. “It led me back through everything we’d gone through.”
After Aubrey died, Bracale began gathering her journal entries and sketches. There were emails from medical professionals, stacks of paperwork, photographs and legal documents. Over the next eight months, Bracale compiled and illustrated all of it, laying hundreds of pages out on the floor of the now-empty room where her son’s father spent some of his remaining days.
The result is a book that is part graphic novel, part memoir: “Our Last Six Months: An Illustrated Memoir About Cancer, Death, End-Of-Life Care, Love, Family and Forgiveness.”
In 2011, Bracale also published “In the Lyme-Light: Portraits of Illness and Healing” about her journey coping and healing from Lyme disease.
“I have always felt that through unusual drawings and paintings you can say different things than you would with words,” said the mother of two. “The images can reward your brain and keep you moving.”
Told through Bracale’s eyes, “Our Last Six Months” follows the 1990 College of the Atlantic graduate as she learns of Aubrey’s cancer, decides to take him in and becomes his caretaker and advocate.
“I was down in the trenches being the health care advocate and I found reading other people’s memoirs really helpful,” said Bracale, who has been drawing since she was young. She found herself turning to the graphic medicine genre, reading stories such as Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” and “Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me” by Sarah Leavitt. “It gets people thinking about these issues we tend to avoid,” she said. After reading “Being Mortal,” by Atul Gawande, she decided the experience that had so upended her life might be helpful to others.
“I wanted to make a book that would add to that conversation and get people talking.”
Bracale describes “Our Last Six Months” as “180 mini stories.” “I wanted to alternate between heavy and light,” said the art teacher. “To give the reader permission to feel full range of emotions,” even, she added, anger at a loved one who is dying. The book also is filled with tear-out sheets, illustrated advice manuals on how to navigate end-of-life decisions and tips on finding sanity during trying times.
“I let the style of the illustrations morph depending on the mood,” said Bracale. The lines around the panels wobble in times of distress and are straight in times of calm. “That’s what you can do with illustration,” said Bracale. “You can fine-tune the emotional response.”
A prominent character in the book is Earl, Emily Bracale’s son, who was 13 when his father was diagnosed (most of the names of characters have been changed). Her son, whose real name is John, collaborated on some of the content. While that meant revisiting painful memories, it also meant, “We both went very deep into processing it.”
At times, Bracale said she also looked for guidance from a higher power. Bracale is a student of A Course In Miracles, which she describes as “a self-study course that teaches you how to shift your perspective.” It isn’t a religion, although she has joined others in discussion groups.
“In daily life and especially when things get rough,” she said in an email, “I try to remember to ask the Holy Spirit/Higher Self for divine guidance/intuitive insights, and then take action from that inspired perspective.”
While writing the book, she would “sit down at my desk each day and literally ask the H.S. ‘So, what should I write/draw today?’”
In recent years, there has been an explosion of graphic novels dealing with difficult subjects, from Alzheimer’s to infertility and depression. Bracale’s book is more of a hybrid, with text alongside illustrations, but Bracale said the addition of illustrations still helped lighten the heavy subject matter.
“I’ve had people tell me ‘I loved your book, it was so fun to read!’” she said. The text and illustrations are a “duet of equals. “They’re both playing their part.”
Bracale has gotten messages from patients who say “Our Last Six Months” has helped them decide to enter hospice care and from family members trying to navigate the choice with their own loved ones.
“This is more than a memoir — it is an essential guidebook for others in similar difficult situations,” wrote Jeanie Smith, Board President of The Whole Health Center in Bar Harbor, in a review. “[Bracale] gives us a direct and true account in an honest and open-hearted way, never maudlin or sentimental. Illustrations help to tell this story with warmth and humor. This is a gem of a book.”
Not every aspect of the last six months is described in detail. “Sometimes I decided to withhold an image because it was too personal,” Bracale said.
The pages detailing Aubrey and Earl’s last discussion, for instance, are text-less.
“We’re not supposed to get into that scene,” she said. “That’s behind the curtain and it should be.”
If there’s one lesson she wants readers dealing with a dying loved one to leave with, it’s this: “They’re still this whole person. They’ve still had this full life. Don’t lose sight of that.”