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You'll Believe A Man Can Fly... Reflections On My Mom

Today, I got the voicemail I’d been waiting for.


The tone of Mom’s voice told me everything I needed to know.


“Hey Kiff, it’s Mom. We’ve gotten results. Call me at your convenience.”


I’m in Australia, so I did the math. It was early AM tomorrow here, but yesterday evening in Grand Rapids.


She’ll have bad news whether I call right now or get a jump off on this work. I decide to bury myself in work so I don’t have to cut things short, and prepare. I text my brothers to let my folks know I’ll call when we break recording at 1p.


I see the WhatApp message from my brother Drew before we speak. Sure enough.


Leukemia. Treatment, but no cure.


Mom’s been sick for about 3 weeks and it seemingly came out of nowhere. That’s how it happens. The cough, the fatigue, but it doesn’t get better. Appetite but no improvement. The doctors bring in an oncologist for the first time. Spirits are still high and optimistic about this being a stubborn virus. Not covid, so what the hell? “Just knowing will make things better.” she said.


After the blood transfusion last weekend she had more energy, enough to get mad about the news. But spirits lift when I describe my adventures into the Australian hinterlands and climbing mountains with new friends.


But today, definition.


Now look, my mom is very much alive and in good spirits, in good hands, and is surrounded by all the rest of my family. She begins treatment on Dec 27th. But we are as a family beginning a new journey as we prepare for what’s next. And what’s next is daunting and unknown.


Tonight, I want to tell you about my mom, who she revealed herself to be to me, and share these memories, share her impact, the growth and the inspiration that she (and my dad) have had on our family and how I’ve come to be as a person, a friend, a colleague, an artist, a parent, a spouse and a son.


Marilyn was born on August 10, 1946 to Ralph and Ida Heynen, the fourth of four girls. As she tells it, she was very much her father’s daughter, a bit of a tomboy and nicknamed Butch by ______ (not sure, will get details when she reads this.


She has always struggled with her weight and consequently, her self-confidence. But to know her, you couldn’t know that. She’s always struck me as one of the most confident people I know.


Her willingness to risk on behalf of our family is jaw-dropping. Her focus has always been on her desire to give us all unique experiences like the camping trips she took as a family, where her folks would haul a little popup trailer across America and see everything our country has to offer. An intrepid, adventurous, insatiable spirit. Even the house they built on Lake Michigan was built to accommodate our large family which for the most part it does. It’s been a blessing for us all to spend the time together there. Our daughter has spent summer and winter nights with her cousins, climbing the dunes, swimming and playing like we did with our cousins growing up.


She and my dad taught school for a year before I was born and then when my dad got out of the National Guard, they both worked at Pine Rest Christian Hospital, a mental institution that has been the hub of our lives growing up, where my grandfather Ralph was the chaplain. Mom worked the switchboard at the hospital on Sunday afternoons after church, and we boys would go down to the gymnasium and spend HOURS playing there, scraping change out of her coin purse for the vending machine for a Reggie or Whatchamacallit bar.


When we didn’t have much change, we’d settle for sharing a pack of gum (only a dime). Dad worked in Risk Managment for most of his career at the Pines and we boys all worked there in just about every building, residence, unit and kitchen. We learned to drive on the campus of the hospital.


This was a thing. And it was awesome.

But my mom is an artist. Her medium is textiles. She’s a gifted visual artist with a deep faith and specifically loves the abstract and symbolism, and expressing her faith in the ancient symbols of Christianity embedded in imagery of the natural world.


One year, Mom decided our Christmas tree would be a Chrismon Tree, a pine tree with foam core white religious symbols with glitter glued to them and just plain ol’ white lights. No candy canes or colorful lights. Just crosses and fish and stars. (We did that just once, thankfully. It was beautiful but I’m sorry, it was a very boring tree. (Sorry, Mom. You know how I always preferred colored lights.))


To be fair, Marilyn’s was much more tasteful. Smaller ornaments, but you get the idea. (No disrespect meant to the Ursaline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph. This is a lovely tree,)

For a religious upbringing though, considering how conservative our grandparents were (both my Grandfathers were ministers in the Christian Reformed church) my folks were very liberal. In a tradition that forbade… and then frowned upon… and then eventually embraced dancing, card playing and movie going, my folks took us to the movies, (my first that I remember was Young Frankenstein, The Rescuers was sold out, so we pivoted) and always had a spare deck of cards (even if it was Uno.)


The folks were committed to covering the tuition of Cutlerville Christian School/South Christian High School for all 5 of us, a significant cost. This financial burden, along with Mom’s desire to create and work in her chosen medium, led her to begin her company, Banners Unlimited, which I still remember her painstakingly designing the simple but effective logo for. All before the days of Photoshop and when opaque projectors were expensive and unwieldly.


As we all once worked for Pine Rest, we all worked for Banners, developing our tracing and cutting skills. My brothers did not care for this but I loved it. I would make my own custom t-shirts and sweatshirts and applique the logos to my favorite movies and cartoon characters unto my jean jacket. It was often tedious, exhausting, unfulfilling work for her and frustrating to my father as well. But it was her force of will, drive, and application of pressure to accomplish a vision she had, tied to her deep belief in being able to use your talents to make your way. An artist in Cutlerville, Michigan without a rich benefactor. Making our tuition and mortgage payments 25-40 bucks at a time for clients who needed custom work for their boats, businesses and political campaigns.


We would go to art shows in the summer, every weekend a different art shows, selling flags of U of M, MSU, ohio state (lower case on purpose), and a million Irish and rainbow flags and windsocks. She also had pieces that were original minimalist designs, meant to emulate the sunset over Lake Michigan, seagulls, and tulips. She and Dad usually didn’t get much sleep the night before, sewing streamers on the windsocks, and putting plastic strips through the top and bottom of them to hold their forms, pounding grommets into the flags. As we got older and better with those tools we would assist, trying hard not to fuck up the placement and render a potential unit unsellable. We’d get up at 4:00a and load the van and Mom would sleep in the front seat as Dad drove us through the bank to get cash for change and then on to Pentwater or Muskegon or Grand Haven for 2 days of show life. We’d roll back home sometimes with a nice haul, and others, with more product than dough.


That’s what she did. What I learned from those years was a staggering work ethic, an attention to detail that has served my own work, and a willingness to bet the farm on my artistry. So when I expressed an interest in being an actor, I too, was filled with self-confidence in my talent and a willingness to risk. Learned that at home. It wasn’t a popular topic. My mother in particular didn’t like the idea. Hollywood is “a godless Babylon”, after all. At least, that’s what everyone in Cutlerville said. (Not entirely untrue, but Cutlerville could be a godless Babylon, too. The video arcades and party stores were at one time the very gates of Hell… until you needed mixers and Solo cups.)


My mom was bullied growing up. She was the only person who really empathized with my struggles with bullying as well because she had it really tough. Her advice was counter my father’s, which was to hit the bully once in the nose and that should end it. (Which worked when I finally tried it) Her advice was to counter the bullying with light. With kindness and warmth. To keep a sense of humor about myself. This has also worked, especially in the world of social media. I employ both tactics as required when the world has turned the eye of Sauron on me.


When I got to Calvin College, my mom always said that she and Dad wanted our home to be a place for our friends to be welcome at. And we took them up on it. Our big sectional couch served as a bed for many of my classmates over the years. We hosted friends over the holidays. All of us did. Mom and Dad were extended local parents to all of the kids we brought into the house.


Another virtue that was present in our home was generosity. Everyone is welcome to crash, eat, weigh station, chat, be heard, laugh and vent. My favorite time of my youth was the stretch from beginning high school through roughly 9 years to when I started work in Tennessee on a TV show and left home. I didn’t really even know I was leaving home when I took that job, but I did. That’s really when I moved out. I took the car, my clothes, Tom Waits and Springsteen CDs and my Laserdisc player and went to seek my fortune. Mom and Dad made frequent trips down, (they’ve always traveled to us wherever we lived) bringing the whole family along, and East Tennessee got adopted by the VandenHeuvels. We even went down there over a Thanksgiving while Dad was on dialysis and rented an A-frame. God, the phrase “A-frame” is what I remember the most leading up to that trip. Mom talking about all of us staying in the “A-frame in Laurel Valley.”


The best thing and the memories that I am now pulling forward were the hours of sitting around our dinner table and talking about movies, and comedy, and acing out bits from Saturday Night Live, and getting laughs. I would explain the plot of some film, act it out, cry about what it meant. Or recite Eddie Murphy bits or Robin Williams bits, or we’d tell the same old kid stories to each other and alienate the brothers who weren’t born yet.


Don’t get me wrong, there were also HOURS upon HOURS of hard discussions at that same table where Mom would get into my case about stuff like a acupuncturist. Dad would be along for the ride often and cosign with what Mom was saying but, damn, getting cussed out or having a talk like that with my mom was brutal.


Often when my brothers and I talk, we share what I’m sharing here, and we reflect on things differently about those times. I realize I look back as the oldest, as an artist, and as a first born. And the nature of my relationship with my mom is different from theirs. Just as complex and challenging and loving and beautiful, but also hard. Marilyn is a difficult and formidable woman, and we were raised to honor and fear her. Not an easy task, and even if neither of us were right, we always managed to find an equilibrium of understanding when we left that dinner table.


My superhero is Superman. And it’s not because of the comics. more because of the films. But also it’s what Superman/Clark Kent represents. A kind, strong, just, empathetic son of another place and time who strives to embody and inspire the values of the best of his adopted world. It’s truly what I aspire to be.


“It’s not an S. On my world it means Hope.” - Man of Steel, 2013

Marilyn VandenHeuvel made me believe I can fly.


Because of who I have been raised to be: open to risk, generous, persistent, passionate and joyful… I fly.


So, anyway, now she has leukemia.


Next steps?


Well, tonight, my goal as Superman/Christopher “Kiff” VandenHeuvel, is to do my best to use my ability to fly to ease the fall, brace for impact, comfort my family and shine on the light that this passionate, faithful, stubborn, kind, and loving artist from Cutlerville, Michigan taught me to shine.


And to not wait. To risk, to leap, to love, to share, to create.


And make the most of the time that is given us.


Because that time will end for every one of us.


But endings, like beginnings, can also be beautiful.


December 17, 2021

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