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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.