Sacred circles and holy images: Helping cancer patients and caregivers heal through art
Every Tuesday afternoon for the last seven years, I've visited MD Anderson to help cancer patients and families in the palliative care unit heal through art. I do this as an artist-in-residence with a non-profit organization called COLLAGE: The Art For Cancer Network.
Both my husband and my brother were patients at MD Anderson. When I was asked to become an artist-in-residence at the hospital, I was reluctant. My husband's death was the most painful experience of my life. Then I thought maybe I could help others going through what I had.
Here is an account of one typical visit.
I knocked on the door of the hospital room and I heard a deep voice say, "Come in." The room was dark and full of sadness. A young man sat on the far side of the bed holding his mother's hand and weeping. His father -- her husband -- stood tall on the side near me. His red-rimmed eyes and stoic countenance were heart-breaking. I told them why I'd interrupted them. I waited to be dismissed, but they invited me in. I sat down and thought, "What can I do? They have formed a sacred circle of love around her, and now does not seem like a good time to interfere."
Intuitively, I blurted out, "Is there anything I can draw for you?"
"Can you draw some mourning doves?" the husband asked.
I pulled a pencil out of my bag of supplies and one of the handmade paper sketchbooks I designed for just this purpose. I drew two mourning doves suspended in flight and handed the drawing to him. "Oh," he said, and clasped it to his body. He shared the drawing with his son, and they both thanked me.
I got up and left, returning them to their circle of love with an image of holy spirits.
I think of the first moments when I enter each room as fragile and tender. Each situation is unique, and I never know what awaits me on the other side of the door. I try to be open to whatever presents itself. I respect the patients' and caregivers' rights to say no to me.
Some patients want to tell me what they are going through or about their lives before cancer. Others just want company. Some offer astonishing metaphors and images that connect to something deep within.
There are so many stories I could tell, so many stories that have moved and inspired me. The lovely bald young woman who had never painted before but wanted to paint a waterfall that reflects how light falls and goes through moving water. The fisherman who wanted me to paint him fishing and wading in the water at sunrise with a blue shirt that was a color somewhere between the water and the sky, so his young daughter could see the beauty he saw. The woman who, with her skeletal hand, could still draw herself hanging from a line attached to a butterfly.
As I've discovered, creating images with cancer patients and caregivers helps distract them from their pain or anxiety. It also helps bring them back to their own lives and away from the hospital room.
When I can help patients bring to life an image that has deep meaning for them, they often connect with the image in a way that brings them peace. When this happens -- and this is certainly not always the case -- the patient or caregiver often cries or becomes radiant or both. In that moment, I too feel whole.
I love this beautiful work. It has made me stronger and helped me restore my life after the loss of my husband. At the same time, hundreds of patients and their beloveds have taught me how I want to die. I have felt their courage, their deep and often beautiful sadness and acceptance of the imminent passing, their faith and sometimes radiant spirituality, their gratitude for their lived lives and the mystical love that surrounds them.