If you have never been seriously ill or had a catastrophic injury in your life then you can never be prepared for the intensity of suddenly being diagnosed with cancer. Luckily or unfortunately my partner has actually had a near death experience so when the doctors told him he had cancer, he didn’t break down or freak out. He silently readied himself for what would become the most awful months of his life.
As artists without insurance or a steady income, this kind of news strikes a blow on many levels. I resorted to panic while he tried calmly to reconcile himself with the reality of six weeks of treatment. First of all we are Canadian – thank you universal health care. We would have to move to Toronto to do the treatment. Would living our dream in a log cabin in the middle of a forest now become a burden? We then had to cancel a three year in the making research trip – and follow through the labyrinth of getting our money back. And what do we tell people? Our family would be amazing and there for us, we knew that. But we both realize the vast amount of shadenfreude that might come of such news, and that our tiny art world built on the not so steadiest house of cards might collapse when some realized that we could easily be replaced from certain projects. We didn’t figure compassion and understanding would be a factor – definite signs of persecuted personality traits. Much appreciated realization. I also forgot that I had friends.
Watching him go through treatment isn’t something I can easily describe or write about at this point. Maybe one day. The last three weeks of treatment he was not really sleeping through the night anymore as the pain was so bad he had to get up and take pills every several hours, and then he would get up everyday, dress and take public transportation to his treatment which consisted of radiation being aimed through his skin to the tumour. The treatments were at different times everyday and on Wednesday he had two. Things got seriously complicated and too difficult – we both had emotional meltdowns. He stopped eating and could only drink nutrition through supplements. He stopped talking – well, he could talk but rarely initiated conversation as it was too painful. He lost weight. He had open sores where the radiation hit his skin. He struggled daily with the most simple of tasks. And yet, he fought off depression and self pity with such tenacity it was inspiring. As far as he was concerned this was like his athletic training from school – he had to burrow down and get through it no matter how awful.
But he is an artist and on weekends when we came home he retreated to the studio and made beautiful paintings; bright, lovely, colourful, intricate, studious, extraordinary and original work, over and over. Music and his painting became the greatest source of strength and comfort as it helped make things seem normal.
I shocked myself at how much I just wanted things to seem normal.
I attempted to be creative but with the lion’s share of the work to do and running around Toronto figuring out what he could eat; I admit I was defeated. I was unable to allow art to save me. Watching various feeds on my social media platforms, all full of hundreds of creative events and activities that I could not attend or be part of – all of them intriguing and wonderful didn’t fill me with envy just a kind of lament.
I am overcome by sadness more than anything else. Sad that at this juncture in my life I have not created a situation where I have better resources to help him. I have lived my life without guile, perhaps deliberately so in order to fulfill a more philosophical goal. A therapist said to me once, “you are deliberately naive.” I think about that everyday. While my life has not been sheltered from tragedy or cruelty I do think that I keep sunshine in my back pocket so that I can create through joy. I realized very early on that anger was a trap, for me anyway, and that if I wanted to get to the end without spending most of my time in shame filled self hate I needed to actually experience joy and hang on to it with all my strength. This I have done very well. It doesn’t seem to help however in a situation where you need to support such misery as cancer treatment and recovery. Or maybe it does, I am unsure still.
What has helped is that my friends who I had forgotten about shone out like angels and are still aiding in any way they can. That we had such remarkable people as friends was not a surprise, what did surprise me was how easy it was to receive and for them to give. Even my Christian upbringing did not prepare me for this. It’s one thing to believe in goodness, it’s another to see it in action. There is no way I can thank them enough.
We are now in the healing stage of this. As someone very wise said to me, ‘it’s a process not an event’. Such simple and beautiful truth. He gets better everyday.
I am beginning to make an accounting of this experience in a practical way and use it as a test study to shed light on how artists are extremely vulnerable if they are diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer. Perhaps it’s the Taurus in me but I need to have something practical come from this, some good thinking, some helpful information. And this will help with my healing process too. In the meantime, we are just going to do our work, struggle through his recovery and know that on the other side of this remains love and art which are the only antidotes to our darkest moments.