This past weekend, I reluctantly found myself completely immersed in thoughts of, and surrounded by reminders of, the dirty “C” word…no, not that one…the really horrible, awful, heart-wrenching one…”CANCER”. On Saturday, still recuperating from one of her many surgeries, my sister-in-law, Stacie, posted that it was the 2nd anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis. Though it isn’t something to necessarily “celebrate”, it was an important milestone, one to be acknowledged and honored. I responded to her Facebook post that I remembered walking into her hospital room after her first, big surgery in Dallas, and how I was so comforted by her huge smile that day, even though I knew she was in pain. I commented how that smile seems to have never left her face…and it hasn’t. She’s a strong, beautiful woman!
On Sunday, Ralph and I went to see the final Broadway performance of “Wit”, starring Cynthia Nixon as a college professor facing metastacized stage 4 ovarian cancer. Powerful, funny, yet heartbreaking, the play left us, the audience, in utter silence as we exited the theater. And on Friday, I had begun reading a book my sister Kelli gave me for my birthday, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. It is a fascinating and sad account of the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Baltimore whose cervical cancer cells were taken at her death in 1951 and became the foundation of the multi-billion dollar cell culture industry, resulting in medical breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to gene therapy to corneal transplants, among many other things…while her family continues to live in extreme poverty.
All of this brought my thoughts to my sister Malia, now in her 8th year of surviving breast cancer. I spent the weekend reflecting on her journey – the multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, the lifesaving-yet-finance-taxing medications, the annual trips to NYC to walk the Race for the Cure in Central Park. I remember flying home to Dallas to have an opportunity to sit with her through one of her chemotherapy sessions. As I watched her sit peacefully and calmly in a chair for hours while powerful poisons dripped into her veins, my respect, admiration and love for her grew tenfold. I always knew how strong and beautiful she was; but on this day, she was supernaturally so.
I decided this weekend that I would post an old email I sent out a few years ago, recounting an art project I instigated in tribute to Malia, who was about to undergo her first mastectomy – one of many major surgeries she would face. It was an attempt to create something beautiful out of tough, life-changing, body-transforming decisions my sister had to make…and with the love and help of family and friends, I think we succeeded. Below is the post, with photos of the project. To my sister Malia, my sister-in-law Stacie, and all the other strong, beautiful women in my life who are surviving this disease (Pam S, Jean H, Mary Ann D, Harrilyn A and others), keep fighting, keep living, Ladies! I bought a t-shirt for Malia when I moved to NYC that says it all: “Cancer, you picked the WRONG bitch!!!”
The Torso Project, 2004:
I was in Detroit for a technology conference at Eastern Michigan University, the week before my sister Malia was scheduled for her first mastectomy. While I was at EMU, I happened to pass by one of the fashion-design classrooms; and I noticed that the students had made dress forms of their own bodies for draping their own garments. They had taken duct tape and wrapped each others’ torsos in it (over thin t-shirts), then cut off the forms and painted them white to stiffen them.
I was amazed; and I had the idea of doing the same thing for my sister Malia, to capture her torso before she had her life-altering surgery. When I returned to Dallas, she came over to my Oak Cliff apartment; and I wrapped her in duct tape over one of my favorite, old t-shirts, then cut the form off her down the center back and spray-painted it with several coats of white to stiffen it. For days, it sat on my countertop, eery and profound, a glowing, porcelain-like cast of Malia’s body as it would never be again. Seeing it every morning, every evening, I was reminded of the impermanence of all things – our youth, our bodies, our lives.
Not long after her surgery, I joined family and friends for a dinner party at Malia and Matt’s house in Waxahachie. I brought my shoeboxes filled with tubes of acrylic paints and brushes in all shapes and sizes. Throughout the day, everyone at the gathering participated, if even a little bit, in painting the form. We painted, then painted over and over each other’s work, building layer upon layer of color and texture, merging each other’s designs into a beautiful work of art. At some point, it just sort of “emerged”; we all figured the work had declared itself “complete”. We stood back and admired it, walked around it, pondered it…a wild, swirling mix of angry and happy colors, of chaotic and soothing patterns…and definitely, an expression of love from everyone who participated in the project, to Malia.
When the paint dried, I took the form back to my apartment and spent days hand-sewing glass and metal beads over it, in scattered areas across the broad shoulders, the curves of breast and hip. My fingers raw and sore from pushing the needle hundreds of times through the thick, hardened layers of paint and cloth and my eyes raw and sore from crying over what lay ahead for her, I finally finished. Handling her former “body” in my hands for days, I was finally able to come to terms with her illness…and finally had clarity that she would be okay…she would survive. In gratitude, I closed the open back by punching holes in both sides of it with an old metal awl, criss-crossing it closed with red satin ribbon. I hung it on an antique, wooden coat-hanger and presented it to Malia, in hope, admiration, and love.