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.
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.