In July there was an article in The New Yorker by Lawrence Wright about the new phenomenon of art and culture in Renaissance Italy. It arose from the ashes of the horrific ‘Black Death’ plague in the Middle Ages. Let me reiterate that– we needed THE PLAGUE to grow the artistic bounty of our pals Leonardo and Michelangelo (okay fine, Donatello and Rafael, heroes in a half-shell, plague power!). So much loss and social upheaval led to “a fresh air coming in” and “a wonderful human response…to think in a new way.”
This metaphor (disaster and rebirth) looms large for all of us, as Covid wreaks havoc, but it is not a new concept for me. Art seems to have followed me around since cancer. David Allen’s tattoos, Brushes with Cancer (and my artist Bowen Kline) and now Susan Gubar’s writing.
What makes Mr. Kline’s figure more than a poster girl for a “we-can-beat-cancer” cliché? Ms. Lombardo’s wary expression after she has lit the fuse to blow cancer to smithereens. “Here goes nothing,” she seems to be saying, “but what the hell?” Despite her bravado and the artist’s comic approach, the proximity of the bomb to her head feels ominous.
So writes Susan Gubar, about me, in the New York Times. Though you may not know her by name, Gubar resides in the tiny area of the venn diagram where cancer and literary excellence meet.
The article profiles Brushes with Cancer, the worldwide philanthropic organization that pairs cancery folk with artists who help to translate our two-dimensional stories into 3-D art–a process which helps exorcise our demons and turn them into something tangible.
My artist, Bowen Kline, was matched to me by the founder of Twist Out Cancer (the parent organization of Brushes), Jenna Benn Shersher. Jenna and I grew up in the same town and our lives intersected at various points throughout adulthood. Once she learned of my diagnosis, she folded me into her world again and, in what felt pre-destined, she paired me with Bowen and ‘Bombs Away’ was born.
As Gubar so poignantly describes, in the picture I stand in the middle of the frame smirking at a bomb which I am about to detonate, so as to blow up (and hopefully eradicate) my disease. But what Gubar notices that I did not, is that the bomb, the visual representation of my diagnosis, could very well blow me up, too. The plan is for me to toss it like a grenade, but that’s the thing about cancer. The bomb could go off in my own hand.
Though I never thought about the painting in terms of my own obliteration, I certainly thought about cancer making me one of its statistics.
Post-Cancer (PC) time is the ying to Before Cancer (BC) time. In BC times we frolicked like unicorns with unabashed delight. Immediately PC, life feels like being in a room with low ceilings filled with Jello. The air feels heavy, sparse and perhaps, finite. This is where you have to make The Choice.
The Choice comes down to: how are you going to live now that you have been handed back that option? You have faced your own mortality, said, ‘Oh no you didn’t’ and now you have to decide how you are going to get back into the game.
I have encountered a lot of people who just can’t get off the bench. Cancer ruined a part of their game. They go on with their lives, but they drag a cancery shadow with them everywhere they go. They just slog around in that Jello zone.
Unconsciously (subconsciously?) this was not an option for me. I have seen what happens to my house and family when my husband is in charge: it is not okay. The small people I created need me for their survival.
Things changed. I changed. I started to live like those wooden word art signs you see at Home Goods. You know, all that ‘dance like no one is watching’ malarky. But I was ready for everyone to watch. What did I have to hide (other than tumors for a few years, HEY-OO cymbal crash)? Cancer transformed me from someone with infinite potential but limited drive to someone lighting bombs all over town just because I could.
Four years after treatment I wear my natural long brown hair in a short platinum blonde mohawk. Not because it is growing back after chemo, but because I WANT TO. I have volunteered at the cancer center where I was treated BECAUSE I CAN. I took a job as a Health Aide at a local elementary school during Covid BECAUSE I NEED GOOD HEALTH INSURANCE. Wait- scratch that! BECAUSE I AM EQUIPPED WITH THE SKILLS TO HELP PEOPLE WHEN MOST ARE TOO AFRAID.
As a person who has had cancer and chemotherapy in the past 5 years, should I be on the frontline of Covid care? Who knows really, but you know what? I am not scared. The disease itself doesn’t frighten me. That is familiar. It is living around the virus that is scary, and I can disarm that like a pro.
And so there’s my name, and the painting of me and my bomb in the New York Times. Perhaps we see ourselves best through others’ representations. Artists are mirrors. I didn’t know I held the weapon so close. You warned me. I didn’t know I was full of flowers. You showed me.
I come home from work in scrubs and a mask, 4 years after cancer. I see myself and think “I don’t live under the illusion that I am indestructible.” I am busy living.
Hand me your bombs.