Several weeks ago, I got a series of cryptic texts from a good friend’s husband. She had been hospitalized for a couple of weeks and had been moved into rehab. While she has an incurable form of breast cancer, with treatment the oncology team said she could live another ten years. That was three years ago, but lately she’d developed an intense headache that wouldn’t go away. Numerous tests and scans showed nothing, but after a year of non-stop head pain, it had increased to a point that was unbearable and she was experiencing blackouts.
Neurological tests, blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, and more revealed little. Medications were tried, some were adjusted and there was some relief of pain…sort of. While all this was happening, she was also unable to swallow and was losing weight that she couldn’t afford to lose. After some time, the swallowing issue was finally addressed and she was able to start nibbling some food again.
But the doctors remained perplexed. She was moved to rehab to work on various therapies to strengthen and keep her balance. That made me quite hopeful. During our visits I always made jokes to make her laugh. I love to hear her laugh and laughter is good medicine.
But then the texts came. Could I come by the rehab around six? No, my husband and I had plans to go out to dinner but I could come after. That wasn’t going to work but he wouldn’t say why. He started floating out other times for the next day, I kept texting questions and he kept dodging. Finally I called him, but I was still not getting any straight answers. I told Mike something was up and we changed our plans. I texted that I was coming and with that, in my flowing long skirt, I went to Mary Free Bed to see my friend for another time that day.
Her husband met me at the ground level. He was still obfuscating but I figured I’d find out soon what was up. It was her birthday in a few days - maybe they wanted help planning something. It was a long shot, but I just could not figure out what was happening.
When we got to the room, another couple was there. They are close friends of this couple and I am acquainted with them so we chatted amiable for a bit and then, as calm as could be, my friend told us that the doctors had finally discovered the problem. It seems that one percent of breast cancer patients develop a secondary, aggressive form of cancer. This is what had happened and it had wrapped around a nerve cluster in the brain stem radiating pain to the left side of her head and face.
And then she told us the prognosis. Four to six months to live. That was with the radiation that was going to be started immediately. We talked, asked questions, teared up a bit, and laughed a bit. She was tired and we left her to rest. Hugs, kisses, and ‘see you soon’s. I talked a bit with her husband in the hall. He was devastated but holding up for her sake. So much to do with out of town family coming. Lending support as much as I could, keeping myself composed. I left him to go back to his wife while I made my way to the elevator.
Down in the lobby, I took off my badge, went through the first set of double doors and then to the parking lot. Next to the door was an iron bench with a worn chartreuse cushion. The parking lot was empty and I sat on the bench and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed some more.
And then, because I have a convoluted artist’s way of thinking, I thought of the Van Gough drawing titled “Weeping Woman.” It captures the expression of grief. Then I pictured my black flowing skirt, the bench against a concrete wall with the solitary light fixture illuminating the entrance with it’s cold light. And I thought it would make a good composition for a painting reflecting grief. Solitary, hard, barren, with washed out color.
I am entering that world - the world of grief - again. But to wish away the pain is to wish away the love. And the is something I cannot do.
While we were waiting for the results from my biopsy, we received the news that Mike’s uncle had passed away. He had been fighting cancer valiantly for three years and his time had come to an end. The last of Mom Kemper’s siblings were gone.
Bob had had a good life, a wonderful wife, and a great son. They were with him as he died. A good life, a good death. Still, it’s hard to accept the news.
I was at the studio when I got the call. My surgeon has me under some restrictions but I can still putter around with paper and pen. After the phone call, though, I wasn’t feeling very creative. The sun was shining so I went for a walk, trying to sort through my emotions. There is the promise of spring in the crips air, but I couldn’t really soak that in.
Loss is inevitable - a part of life. I’ve certainly experienced my share of it over the years. I won’t say it’s easier but I am starting to accept it more.
Is that a sign of growth?
The next call was from the surgeon. She called me personally to let me know the lump was cancer free. So thankful for that news.
Life and death in one afternoon.
I was sitting in my gown, talking with Mike as we waited for the surgeon to return. It was nice to have him with me. He sat there clutching my clothing as if it were a teddy bear.
“You can put that in the chair,” I suggested.
“Nah, it gives me comfort,” he said and smiled.
I grinned back. This might be nothing, but it also might be serious. All we had at the moment was each other.
“Do me a favor,” I said. “If this turns out to be serious and you find yourself on your own again, please don’t marry someone twenty or more years younger than yourself. That’s so cliché.”
He laughed. “Honey, I don’t have that kind of money.”
I gave him a look. “It’s not always about money. Just keep it in a ten year bracket.” We’ve witnessed several public mid-life crisis, seemingly always ending up in marriage to someone significantly younger. And while I honestly hope for the best for all involved (including, and possibly especially, for former spouses) it is often not a rosy picture after a few short years.
But the surgeon came back and our conversation was cut short. I was in this examining room because of a small lump in my left breast. Upon examination and looking at the x-ray, she said, “It’s very close to the surface and if you don’t want to wait I can take it out today. We can get it down to the lab right away for examination.”
We were little stunned and it took a moment to register. This was supposed to be a brief consultation and to schedule a biopsy. This was great news. “Let’s do it!”
So the lump is out and on the way to the lab.
We are thankful for this small mercy.
After I'd posted the first icon I wrote (factoid - you write an icon, you don't paint it), a friend who is undergoing treatment for cancer commented how much she liked it. So much so, she was wondering how she might be able to acquire it. The tradition of creating icons has a pretty strict stipulation that you don't give away your first one because it is full of your frailties and flesh, not spirit and prayer. While she was gracious when I explained that, I determined she'd have one to help her along in her healing journey.
Carolyn Rock and the rest of the West Michigan iconography family were gracious in assisting me with materials, prayer, and moral support in creating the Archangel Gabriel. The messenger. My prayer is that he brings a message of healing to my friend.
After a couple weeks it was finished, and I presented it to my friend. She was speechless. No small feat.
Have a glimpse. And while you're thinking of it, join me in prayer for her healing.
We have experienced another death in the family. While we are attending to this, I thought I'd post something I wrote while caring for Dad in the hospital. For those who have asked, he is recovering at home now.
Contrary to Hollywood and Hallmark, love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling, nor is it passion. While there is room for that in love, love is primarily sacrifice.
One of the things I really enjoy is travel. I enjoy seeing the landscape go by, whether by car, train, bus or overhead by plane. I enjoy new cultures, eating new things, meeting new people, learning about history, and visiting museums. Because I've made my living as an artist (i.e. no living at all), my travel budget is slim. Usually, best I can do is a road trip from time to time.
Wanderlust was hitting me hard this summer and I had started thinking about another road trip. Nothing had been formalized, but I had contacted some friends on the east coast to see what the possibilities were to get together. Maybe I'd drive through the Shenandoah Valley, visit some people I met at Glen East (http://glenworkshop.com/ ) last year, go to Washington D.C., and then down to Atlanta. Maybe I could get someone to meet me in Manhattan or Boston. Part of the fun is thinking of the places I could go.
At the end of August, the Aluminum Overcast B-17 flew into Grand Rapids. This was the plane that my father-in-law served on as gunnery sergeant in World War II. He was stationed in Las Vegas and trained men to shoot in all of the gun turrets except the nose turret. I was running errands when I saw the plane fly into town, but I forgot to tell Mike about it. Fortunately, he saw an article in the paper and told me about it.
The Experimental Aircraft Association flies these planes to keep history alive (http://www.b17.org/ ). They offer tours on the planes and share the history of WWII. For a fee, you can have a ride in a B-17. Mike and I decided it would be great to take Dad up in the plane one more time. We made the arrangements, and took Dad on the ride of a lifetime. He was sharp as a tack that day, recalling his years during the war. He was delighted to be on the plane and the crew and passengers were delighted to have a WWII vet on the flight.
There went my road trip. I did get to go up on the plane and experience history for half an hour. I took lots of photos and created albums for Mike and Dad, which was greatly appreciated. But I did not wander the open roads this year. You sacrifice things you really want and/or enjoy for the love of someone else. My husband and his father had a magical day, and I got to be part of that.
Dad is currently recovering from major surgery and greatly confused by it all. Sometimes he thinks he's in a hotel. Other times he thinks he's in a storage unit. Sometimes he pulls out his IVs and gives the hospital staff quite a workout. Every day, though, is getting a little bit better. It's amazing to see how Mom – his bride of 70 years – can soothe and calm him. I was deeply touched when he first came out of surgery. His first words to Mom were, “Are you still my girlfriend?”
Mom could ask us to move Dad into nursing care sooner rather than later. But she'd rather care for Dad as best she can until it can't be done anymore. We're here to support her and help her make that happen.
There's sacrifice all around. This is what love looks like.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.