The love of art, of life and a deep-rooted love for each other guided Joan Gaustad and her husband, Gerald “Jerry” Donato, throughout their marriage and their lives. That devotion never wavered when Donato was diagnosed with early onset dementia and died eight years later at age 68.
Art is “just who we were,” said Gaustad, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts in 1975 and has now written a book “Someone’s Missing … and I Think It’s Me,” chronicling the life and loss of her husband after 37 years of marriage.
In the book, published by VCU Publishing and which launches at an event at James Branch Cabell Library on Sept. 8, Gaustad combines memoir, art and advice for those dealing with brain illness in loved ones. The book is illustrated with original artwork by Gaustad, Donato and friends.
During the launch event, Gaustad will discuss the book with Sara Monroe, M.D., a VCU professor emeritus of infectious disease, in person and via Zoom at 7 p.m.
The idea for the book surfaced after Donato, an accomplished painter who taught at the School of the Arts, passed away in 2010. Gaustad had written diaries during her husband’s illness. The diaries are an important element of the book as well as an exhibition currently on view in the first-floor gallery at The Anderson. An opening reception for the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 29, will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sept. 10.
“The book is very visual,” Gaustad said, noting the tie-in to both events. “An agent told me ‘you don’t need all those pictures,’ but I said, ‘I am an artist and this is about an artist couple. It’s what I am called to do.’”
A flood of memories
After Donato passed away, the stories associated with the couple’s past and her husband’s illness started flooding into Gaustad’s mind.
“Images would come to my mind, like his license plate, which said ‘DOUBT,’” she said. “When Jerry was deep into the dementia and hospitalized, he looked at me and said, ‘someone is missing.’ He took a bite of his apple and then said, ‘I think that is me.’ He had crayons on his bed and I took them and wrote it down. As much as he was losing everything, his spirit and that kind of wit was still there. Jerry was never missing.”
The same sentiment that sparked the book, and serves as its core, is one that Gaustad feels many people can relate to, and that relatability is essential to her, she said.
After writing the manuscript, she asked a widower she knew to read it and provide some feedback.
“He said, ‘this book makes me feel less alone,’ and I thought, this is exactly what I want to offer people,” she said.