Today is Holden’s twenty-fifth birthday. There is a small rock sunk deep in my ribcage, my throat is cement and my eyes are overflowing. When that happens I go to my keyboard and let go. I want his name to be spoken, his face to be pictured and his laugh to be heard. I want him here, and because that is not possible, I want him present in whatever way he can be conjured.
I imagine birthdays past. Cupcakes and blue icing on cheeks, water guns soaking hair, laser tag all sweaty and smiling, slip and slide in the backyard, the coveted Complete Calvin and Hobbes Collection; the shouts and laughter. A summer birthday has fewer guests and more outdoor fun. As he got older, new cel phones, clothing, dinners out, a trip to New York, a case of Ichiban noodles and that first legal beer. I recall practical gifts for a burgeoning new adult life.
Three years ago today I spoke at Holden’s Memorial Service. It was an excruciating task but I wanted to publicly honour my son as a person of quality and strength. I wanted to pay tribute to his distinct character, his extraordinary creativity and his humour. I didn’t know if I could get through it but somehow I did. This is some of what I said in that sweltering warehouse down by the water.
Let me tell you about Holden. When he was born, on this day, 22 years ago he was already beautiful. He would probably not like me telling you this but he really was exquisitely beautiful. He was calm and wise looking and we felt somehow that he already knew quite a lot. His skin was a flawless ivory and his eyes had a way of being both dark and bright at the same time.
It wasn’t an easy delivery, Holden tried to be born bottom first which made things challenging. Of course we didn’t know it at the time but this was the first of thousands of things Holden would try to do in his own unique way with his own personal style. He was and would always be unconventional.
As a baby Holden was content to sit and observe. He wasn’t in a rush to walk. Which is strange considering what a fabulous walker he became as a young man. Although I suspect the walking was just so he could spend his bus fare on other things. When he was about 1 or so he and I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery. We were in a huge lofty room on the second floor, just the two of us and he wanted to be taken out of his stroller. Up to that point he had just table walked or toddled holding our hands but when he saw at the other end of the vast room what I remember as a huge Jack Shadbolt abstract painting he just marched toward it like a little soldier. No wobbling, no faltering. The painting was enormous and I had to stop him before he pressed his sticky little hands all over it. It was as though he wanted to walk right into that abstract world and spend some time.
He was naturally poetic and incredibly imaginative. He would say such marvellous things at such a young age that I started writing them down in a book called “Holden said.” When he was 3 years old he told me quite thoughtfully that, “ 0 is a letter and a number and a word.” One day he informed me that he, “could tell poetry with his brain tied behind his back.” When Holden would meet new kids at the playground we would overhear him introducing himself by saying things like, “I have a name but you can just call me Storm.” He was naturally funny too. Once when he spilled his cereal he looked up with that little blonde mushroom haircut and said, “bran overboard”. He was very, very smart. In grade 4 Holden was reading at a grade 12 level. We would read the same Margaret Atwood dystopian novels and discuss them over grilled cheese sandwiches.
As most kids do Holden made a lot of art. Piles and piles of it. Finger paintings at first then more and more involved pictures with colourful planets and vivid animals and funny little hybrid creatures of his own invention. He began to create what we now think of a graphic novels. He called them comix, with an x, and they would often tell the story of everyday objects like mushrooms, fish and bouncy balls who had come to life and were now friends going on interplanetary expeditions and waging great battles over things like cheese. They were always visually clever and very funny. One comic I found recently in a big box of his work explained how Mr. Ball, with his bulging eyes and Mickey Mouse hands, could keep bouncing back to life after being mortally wounded. It was because of a ‘systemic anomaly.’ He was about 8 at the time. On the back of these stapled together stacks of paper Holden would include his own trademark. These logos evolved over time but now I see they were his first pseudonyms or tags. The beginnings of his street art life.
These alter egos would eventually become his graffiti names: Miner, Ruler, Sefer and Deser. About grade 6 or 7 Holden and his good friend Hayden formed their first “crew” PB&J. They painted their new and ingenious tag all over the neighbourhood and seemed quite genuinely surprised when it became clear that some residents didn’t think their spray painting was such a hot idea. Cam and Hayden’s Dad Chris took them around to all the fences and garages they had painted to apologize and sand off or paint over the PB&J’s. This was embarrassing and time consuming, but, as you know did not throw him off. Quite the opposite. A big part of the rush of making graffiti is the extremely high likelihood that you will get caught. And he did. Many times.
I don’t think Holden realized just how wonderfully artistic he was. He didn’t think it was a big deal. He just did what he did because he wanted to do it. Not for any other reason. After high school he was accepted to The Emily Carr University of Art and Design. In order to put together his portfolio we had to climb over chainlink fences, skirt over railway tracks and duck under bridges to photograph his work. In true Holden fashion he always went to class but rarely brought a pencil, or a book. He thought the professors and even some of the students were all pretentious assholes. After the first year he was asked not to return. What does it mean to be too unconventional for art school?
As a young adult, all of Holden’s spare time and money were spent on painting. Under overpasses, on warehouse walls, in rail yards and who knows where else. When he was at home he was drawing constantly. On scraps of paper and all over his school books, bubbly letters and all kids of different fonts, over and over and over again, slowly discovering his own style. I’m told his ‘writing’ as it’s called, is easily recognizable in the graf community because it’s ‘dancy’ and alive. He was pretty proud that one of his pieces was still there under the Westview overpass six months after he had painted it. Apparently that is a huge sign of respect.
We didn’t understand why at the time but he was driven, urged, compelled to paint. It was his passion and nothing would stop him. Not injuries, arguments, fights, dangerous situations or even getting arrested. Now, we’re told, his pieces are not being touched or rolled over as a sign of respect for the young man known as the Human Omelette.
Holden also loved being in nature. The simple beauty of it. The peace and calm of it. The easiness. He really enjoyed his work landscaping because it felt so good, he told me, to have his hands in the earth. As a little guy walking along a trail in the forest he would often hum quietly to himself. Just happy to be there in the moment in the woods, with the breeze and the birds and the green. He always loved how there could be so many different shades of green. And so, from the time he was small we spent a lot of time on trails and at beaches, taking camping and sailing trips, skiing in winter and of course taking our annual journey to our beloved Hornby Island. Just recently he told me he was planning on making another trip to Hornby with a friend. It’s a very special place for our family. Holden loved the beauty there. Both the incredible natural beauty and the artistic feel of the island itself and her people.
He loved being in beauty, looking at beauty, creating beauty and expressing himself in beautiful ways. Although he often tried to cover it up, Holden’s emotional range was vast. He felt it all. Holden possessed a depth of creative understanding and possibility greater than most of us will ever know. Holden had a beautiful soul. He was deeply thoughtful and overflowing with feeling; sometimes I think he just didn’t know where to put all of those thoughts and feelings.
Holden also loved his family. He treasured his two beautiful sisters Sophia and Lyla. He was so proud of them and loved being around them. Holden told me he was so happy to be at Sophia’s high school graduation recently in Winnipeg. To see what a lovely young woman she has become. When we got home from our big year long trip and Holden saw Lyla for the first time he gave her a long tight hug. When the hug was over he kept holding on to her and said, “not yet Kiddo, don’t let go yet.” Oh how he loved his sisters.
He had not two but four parents. Cam and Liesl, I thank you from the depth of my broken heart. You couldn’t have loved or cared for him more. We all raised Holden and loved Holden and supported Holden.
When we saw Holden at our place the week before he died he looked great, just great. The picture on the memory card you can take home is from that day. Healthy and tanned and tired from working so hard. I told him he looked “robust” and he said in classic Holden fashion with a touch of an English accent, “I’ve been hearing that a lot lately, Mutha.” He was hungry because a crow had eaten his lunch so I made him a sandwich. We talked and shared stories and hugged and looked at photos of our trip and he stayed over night. In the morning we had breakfast before he headed off to work. We made plans to see each other again soon and spend more time together. He was thinking of moving back to the North Shore and we were thinking of asking him to live with us. It seemed like he was in a very good place.
Please remember our dear Holden as a creative friend. As a beautiful brother, son, grandson, cousin and nephew. As a unique and amazing human being.
Happy Birthday Holden. I feel so grateful to have had the privilege of being your Mom. I will love you always. You are forever imprinted on my heart.
The Holden Courage Memorial Fund for Artists continues to support street art and artists in Vancouver. Thank you.