FARMINGTON — Who will care for the dead? It’s a question that Gustavo and Gaelyn Aguilar, who together make up the TUG Arts Collective, have long been contemplating while living in Maine, the nation’s state with the oldest population.

As the couple often drove past faded gravestones in Franklin County’s numerous 18th and 19th century cemeteries, this question persisted.

“So we started wondering, well what happens when these people pass away? Who is going to take care of these ancestors, especially if there’s no newcomers coming in and being incorporated into these townships,” Gustavo said in a Zoom interview.So we really started thinking from that perspective of the idea of care and how do we care for each other?” 

That broad question became a personal confrontation when Gaelyn’s mother suffered her second stroke in 2018, leaving her with vascular dementia. Gaelyn returned to her hometown in Ohio to settle the inventory of her childhood home and to relocate her mother to Farmington, taking on the role of caregiver.

“It was a big hiccup for us and for me especially, a flipping of the child-parent relationship which is something that it seems to me we all go through,” Gaelyn said.

As she took on this new role, Gustavo took on a new position at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, leaving the couple separated for most of the pandemic. While Gaelyn continued to teach anthropology at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), she also began to write about this moment of intensive caregiving.

I started writing to pay attention to what was going on; the experience alone, I guess I sort of knew was not going to be enough,” Gaelyn said. “And so that’s where what you might call poetry came out of that.” 

During the couple’s separation, Gaelyn did not share her writing with Gustavo yet something mystical happened between them she said. Just from listening to Gaelyn during phone calls, Gustavo was inspired to draw.

“I listened to Gaelyn and without even letting Gaelyn know, I started painting, doing artwork,” Gustavo said. “And I was composing an opera at the same time, so I would compose a little bit of an opera and then do this artwork. And I finally told Gaelyn that I had artwork because I really had not read her writings and I said, ‘I have artwork of just listening to you.’” 

As the couple revealed their work to each other, the images and writing seemed to blend together, exploring the feelings associated with aging, loved ones living out their last moments and life’s many departures from home. By the fall of 2020, the images and text came together in a book format titled “Who Will Care for the Dead?”

Gustavo Aguilar’s digital drawing titled “Family Portrait” accompanies Gaelyn Aguilar’s writing in the TUG Arts Collective book “Who Will Care for the Dead?” The book and film project explores the feelings and tasks associated with caregiving and aging. TUG Arts Collective photo

The first digital drawing Gustavo created stemmed from the memory of a family portrait in his parents’ living room. His abstract reproduction centers around three children engulfed by two larger figures expanding off of the canvas.

“I kind of drew that picture quickly, but in a more abstract way just by memory of this family coming as we have grown, but they still probably see us as children, right? So us three stay as children, and my parents are overgrown, moving to the side because they can’t fit into the portrait anymore,” Gustavo said.

This image is accompanied by Gaelyn’s writing which she hesitates to call poetry, titled “Family Portrait.” It describes the process of a home returning to the status of a house and has echoes of Gaelyn’s experience with what she described as a dismantling of her childhood home in Ohio.

Taking inventory of her mother’s house was a colossal task as Gaelyn’s mother seemed to have kept every scrap of paper from the past five decades. Receipts from 1967 and grocery lists from the ’70s were found, but among this plethora of arbitrary records was a notebook used by Gaelyn’s family to communicate with her grandfather while he was dying.

Gaelyn’s grandfather had been on a breathing tube for several weeks before he passed and the family wrote large-scripted messages to him on a notepad. Everyone had different handwriting so Gaelyn was able to distinguish each person’s message. With Gustavo’s advice, she isolated her mother’s writing from the other messages and compiled it into the book’s second piece of writing titled “Bridge.”

“When I did that, I was in shock but maybe I shouldn’t have been because what she was saying to my father felt exactly like what I was saying to my own mother; trying to be that cheerleader and telling her, ‘you gotta do this mom, you’ve gotta do this.’” 

While the Aguilars were compiling their work into a book, it was unclear whether Gaelyn’s mother was going to recover. But as the couple – now reunited in Farmington – sat together in front of a towering book shelf, Gaelyn proudly said that despite her mother’s dementia, her health has dramatically improved.

“She will outlive us,” Gaelyn said smiling.

Alongside the book, the TUG Collective also produced a short film titled “This Part I Carry” with the music composed entirely by Gustavo. The film link is provided with the purchase of the book which is a limited edition of 300 printed copies.

“Who Will Care for the Dead?” was released Friday and sold exclusively at the Farmington bookstore Devaney Doak & Garrett.

The Aguilars continue to explore this question of aging and the human responsibility of caregiving. The TUG Collective has partnered with Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition to create a series of short films to support legislation proposing assisted living and nursing facility levels of care for people in Maine prisons as they approach the end of their lives.

Through a series of interviews, TUG has been asking people who have been incarcerated, “what does it mean for them to have an honorable release from life?” 

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