Well Illustrated: Visions at the End of Life

Courtesy of TheNewYorkTimes.com | By Lynn Randolph | Originally Published 03.22.2018 | Posted 04.15.2018

As an artist in residence on the palliative care floor of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, I visit with dying patients and their caregivers. These 12 rooms are sacred spaces, and I open the doors carefully to see if art might help.


“Heaven,” a colored pencil sketch of the scene a patient described.                 Credit Lynn Randolph
My work is sponsored by a nonprofit organization called Collage: The Art for Cancer Network, founded by an oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Wheler. She was inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, who said, “I found I could say things with colors and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way, things I had no words for.”
“Going Down to the River to Pray,” drawn for a depressed couple in their late 70s who loved singing religious music.  Credit Lynn Randolph

Recently I talked to a man in his 60s who grew up in a small coastal town near Houston. He loved the Texas coast and its beaches. I asked him, as I usually do, if he had an image in his mind that had meaning for him. He had been thinking about a raindrop he had seen at home before he had been admitted. He talked about how far it had traveled, how it had gone through a storm and it had endured to be a unique drop at this moment on his windowpane.


“The Sound”: A caregiver described a favorite place in Canada where the wind blows snow through the mountains.      Credit Lynn Randolph

I thought about the image. The drop would dissolve and be absorbed into the earth, like all of us. I drew what he was describing: a window looking out on subtle shapes of trees and bushes, a narrow path obscured by slanting lines of rain, and in the center of the pane, a raindrop. He took the drawing and held it closely. There was his raindrop, a small oval shape on a piece of white paper. He looked at me as if we had discovered the universe.

I ask patients to talk about what they love, what has meaning to them. Often the responses are about loved ones, spouses and children, fishing in the bay. Sometimes the patient wants to create an artwork with his or her own hands. Sometimes I create a collage of images: children, horses, flowers, sunsets and sunrises, the beach, a dog, a sport. I’ve drawn the Texas A&M football stadium and Mickey Mouse with an angel because they meant something to a patient.

“Peace”: This was made by a patient in her 50s. “Take me, Lord. I’m ready,” she said.

I connected with MD Anderson because my husband was a patient there. He died in 2000, and losing him was the most difficult experience of my life. I felt flayed. It took me a long time and many paintings to deal with the raw grief.

“Master Builder”  Credit Lynn Randolph

The first moments when I enter a patient’s room are fragile and tender. Some patients are very beautiful in repose and seem at peace. Their partners or family members want me to draw them like that. Once a woman whose husband had just died asked their nurse if I would come to their room and draw them lying together.

“Boy on Bike”: The patient asked for an image of himself at age 12, riding through the woods near a lake in the hills of Tennessee. Credit Lynn Randolph

Recently I saw a young woman who was so ill she could barely talk. When I told her I was an artist, she perked up a little. She was bald, her skin was sallow, and a palm-sized bandage covered the port on her chest through which her chemotherapy had flowed for months.

“Transitional Light” Credit Lynn Randolph

She appeared to have shaken off all the cancer and chemicals in her body. Her back was straight and her head was high. She looked at me unflinchingly, proud as a queen, projecting all the beauty within her. She was no longer “just lying in bed dying.” When I handed her the drawing she clasped it to her chest and said, “Incredible.” This was the image she wanted for her mother and her children.

There was the woman who, with her skeletal hand, could still draw herself hanging from a line attached to a butterfly in whose wings she had drawn the life-lines of her own hand. And there was the man who told me, “I am a murderer, a rapist, a robber and a thief.” He was seeking forgiveness, mostly from himself, and cried when I drew him kneeling in a circle of fire with rays of light descending to his body.

“Horse and Cardinal”: A patient asked me to draw a horse for his granddaughter and declared he adored cardinals. Credit Lynn Randolph
The nurses and doctors were skeptical at first but they now refer me to patients
I have heard what the nurses tell the patients: “She can draw your memories,” they say. “She can draw your dreams.”
“A Beloved’s Touch”  Credit Lynn Randolph

When a patient or caregiver has an image that is deep within themselves and we can make it visible, they often bond with it in a way that makes them feel whole. They might cry, or become radiant, or clasp the image to their bodies. In those moments I feel whole, too.

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