Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Saying "Yes"

I am one of those people who can’t resist saying "Yes" to—well, a lot. Whatever it is I say yes to sounds fascinating, maybe exciting: or it matters to someone I care about. (Sometimes to people I don’t even know.) And there’s the calendar factor, whatever I say yes to isn’t…now. The calendar is more or less empty when I mark it down.

Then the day comes. The calendar is crammed with stuff to do all around it; new possibilities have offered themselves up. Things I might rather do, or even should do. But I said, yes. So, unless it’s absolutely impossible, I do what I said I’d do.

Who says creative people can’t be terminally responsible, too?

Anyway. I said I would participate in this mosaic workshop presented by the CompleteLife Program at the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center:

From Broken to Whole

Individuals with serious illnesses and their families are invited to share personal stories, create artistic imagery, and fashion a collaborative mosaic in this healing workshop that illuminates inspirational journeys.

I must have realized it was on a Saturday, all day on a Saturday, when I said yes to it. And I wanted to do it. I really did. I admire and am fascinated by the work that my friend Dr. Larry Cripe does there with cancer patients, cancer survivors, and those whose lives are profoundly affected by the suffering of their loved ones. I lost my sister Jackie to brain cancer in 2003. The day of the workshop, my daughter Jenny would keeping vigil with her husband’s family for her brother-in-law, who was dying of that same terrible disease.

But I’d been so busy the past weeks. Plus, doing the workshop meant I would have to miss my grandson’s laser tag birthday party.

Competing guilt, I hate that. I said I’d do the workshop; I miss Jake’s birthday party if I do the workshop. Lose/lose.

I’d go, do the writing exercise, beg off afterwards, I decided. Grandchildren trump, after all. Right?

I got there, sat down in a circle of a dozen or so sad people who’d come, hoping to find some light. Among them were a mother and her teenage-age daughter, in a wheelchair, who hoped to begin to learn how to talk about the daughter’s chronic illness; an elderly lady, whose loss of loved ones over the years had become too much to bear; a cancer survivor on crutches, making her way in the body left to her after her illness.

There was a woman, maybe in her early forties, who’d suffered two bouts of lymphoma and had recently learned that the cancer had spread to her kidneys. I thought, when she came in and sat down, her mother and her six-year-old daughter on either side of her, that she was the saddest person I had ever seen.

We introduced ourselves. I did my never-fail “I Remember” writing exercise. “Write ‘I remember…’ about your illness,” I said. “Anything, everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry if what you write seems disorganized or insignificant. Just—write.”

They did—and I watched, as I always do when I give this assignment, moved by whisper of pens on paper, the particular silence of people alive inside their own heads.

Some read—the elderly lady, a really lovely piece about her mother.

“She was there while you were writing, wasn’t she?” I asked.

Momentarily beatific, she said, “Yes.”

How could I leave then?

And, okay, there was a family birthday party for Jake the next day. So it wasn’t like I was going to be a complete failure as a grandmother. Plus, playing laser tag makes me anxious. Should “killing” people be so much fun? Even children?

After a few others read, we moved into a room set up for the mosaic-making process. We divided into groups, each at one of the two long tables. Watercolors and brushes were laid out, and we were directed to paint how the writing had made us feel. It might be an image, it might be something abstract. Or just color. I painted the yellow of my sister’s hair, the blue of her eyes, a dot of orange here and there--freckles. Some green. Life? I loved the feel of the brush in my hand, the bright shock of color on the page, the surprise as one blended into another and became something new. Painting, remembered my sister as a little girl, which pleased me because since the moment of her diagnosis I have had a hard time remembering her as anything but frightened, helpless, and sick.

The sad woman was in my group. Her watercolor was intense and luminous: a band of black at the bottom, one of deep purple, one of drenched blue. A golden sun, a sick green ring around it, took up the top left corner. Something—a tree, a bush—grew up from the bottom left corner. With bare branches.

Some drawings were happy, some dark and disturbing, some peaceful. We looked at them together, and Tina (from Creating Hope) sketched on a piece of mason board as we talked. A lotus, a butterfly, spirals, bits of confetti from someone’s broken rattle, a figure emerging from darkness, bands of color, something growing. Black, brown, blue, green, orange. A wide swath of yellow light.

Then we set to work on it, choosing from an array of colored tiles, breaking them in to the sizes and shapes we needed to fill in the shapes. Breaking, yes. It felt good. And it felt good make something from the broken pieces. Beautiful. Our own.

We talked as we worked. About cancer. About life.

But what I loved best about the day was watching the sad woman lose her sadness, for a little while. Little by little, painting, breaking, gluing, she was released from thought and knowledge. I watched her guide her daughter’s hand, concentrating on placing the piece onto the mosaic just right. I watched her pleasure at the little girl’s accomplishment. I watched her own mother watch her, tears in her eyes.

“I know she worries about me all the time,” the sad woman said, at one point. “But she drives me crazy.” And they both laughed.

She had made up her mind, she had told us earlier. If the treatment she was undergoing for the kidney cancer now didn’t work, that would be the end of it. No more. She couldn’t bear it. Whether she had any real hope that the treatment would work, she didn’t say.

The cancer was was still there at the end of the afternoon, in any case. There was plenty more suffering to face before it was all over—one way or the other.

But she left, smiling. Restored, for that moment, to her true self.

And I left, humbled, grateful. Glad, as I almost always am, that I said, “Yes.”

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