After pulling my hair out by the fistfuls all week, I texted Sarah that it was time. She reached out to our hair stylist, Angelique Hoover, who, in spite of the fact that her grandmother was dying, agreed to come to Sarah’s house on Saturday morning at 11:30 to shave my head. Sarah and I polished off a bottle of rosé before Angelique arrived. We were ready.
A few minutes before we began, I walked into Sarah’s bedroom to hug my ten-year-old niece, Anna Caton (AC or Anna Cate for short). She removed the furry scarf from around my neck and placed it on hers as she watched cartoons from her mother’s bed. AC is extremely pragmatic and fabulous so I leveled with her: “Aunt Cardee is about to get a SHORT haircut. I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay in here. You’re welcome to watch. I’m not scared. This is just something I have to do right now because of the cancer.” Her nonplussed response: “Right, but it’s okay because you have great wigs” and she kept watching Nickelodeon. This is the same child who last month, upon hearing my diagnosis on the way to see me, asked, “Okay … is cancer contagious?” Anna Cate wasn’t fearful, just curious about what she was walking into because she WAS walking in.
The shearing went well with no tears (not that there’s anything wrong with them) and Angelique gave me a beautiful carnelian bracelet to press into the meridian lines of my wrist for healing. (You can purchase her designs on Etsy.) When I went home for a nap and to watch the Army/Navy game, I decided to take off the wig that Angelique shaped for me. The foot of Sarah’s pantyhose which we cut out as a wig liner gave me a headache. I should have taken two aspirin instead.
Getting ready for mom’s annual holiday party several hours later, I couldn’t make the wig work. I panicked. I texted Sarah about my serious wig malfunction, but decided to drive on to the party – one hand on the wheel, one hand messing with the wig. Eliza held my hand to make me stop primping and repeatedly offered to turn back around. But she also said, “You’re going to have to do this at some point.” I viscerally felt the role reversal as she continued to hold my hand walking into the party, and that’s when I caught a glimpse of myself in the entry hall mirror.
I froze. People quickly approached me with kind smiles and stories of family members beating cancer. I struggled through a couple of conversations before excusing myself and running upstairs to mom’s bathroom. I couldn’t make the wig look right. I parted it to the left, to the right, it was no good. Then, I got a text from Matt Conrad, who saw a picture on Facebook of Sarah and me with my new GI Jane look. I was officially hiding in the bathroom at a party texting my high school friend.
Emerging from the bathroom and heading downstairs for more wine, I ran into Anna Cate, who was also hiding. “I’m trying to be nice and talk to people, but all I want to do is eat,” she said. I commiserated. She asked how I was doing and I started crying. To a ten-year-old. “This is really hard for me, AC. This wig, the haircut, all of it.” And then she said something I will never forget.
“It’s not your fault.”
I can’t explain why this declaration pierced my heart, but it did. And for the second time that night, I froze. “It’s not your fault” is not a pragmatic response to someone crying over a wig malfunction due to a head shaving as a result of chemotherapy. Her comment defines the term non sequitur – “an abrupt, illogical, unexpected or absurd turn of plot or dialogue not normally associated with or appropriate to that preceding it.” However, of anything that anyone could have said to me at that moment, those words gave me peace.
When first diagnosed in November, I texted my friend Louise Conklin Gunter with whom I’ve always felt free to be authentic. I was asking pragmatic questions, trying to make sense of breast cancer, wanting to know why. Looking back on my life, I questioned the number of struggles I’ve faced (while being white, college-educated, employed and living in a a first-world country, but still). To be frank, I was having a pity-party, wondering what cosmic lesson I was missing and why I deserved another “growth opportunity,” especially after a particularly rough 2016.
Louise’s response was as follows:
“Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.” -John 9:1-5
That’s precisely what Jean and Dominique de Menil did after the untimely death of their dear friend Jermaine McAgey, whom they lured to Houston from San Francisco to establish and direct the Contemporary Art Museum. McAgy also taught art history classes at The University of Saint Thomas in the department the de Menils founded to provide a strong art history curriculum for Houston’s students and adults. (I am a beneficiary of this generosity – one year into my master’s degree). McAgy’s death rocked the philanthropic powerhouse. But much like in the Old Testament non sequitur when King David worships after the death of his son, the de Menils also responded to tragedy in an unexpected manner. They channeled their grief through art to create an ecumenical chapel. Dominique explained their decision to construct the Rothko Chapel by saying:
“When the floor collapses, it is time to make an act of faith.”
The deMenils’ decision to combine art with spirituality was informed by a friendship with French Dominican friar and Catholic priest Marie-Alain Couturier. Considered the Father of Sacred Art, Couturier sought to end what he called “the divorce” between the world’s greatest art and the church. Unlike early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico who believed “To paint Christ, you have to know Christ,” Courterier felt “each generation must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from secular art.” After World War II, Father Couturier took the de Menils to see four French chapels on which he persuaded leading artists to collaborate:
- The Matisse Chapel in Vence
- Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce in Plateau d’Assy (with art by Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, Ferdinand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Jean Lurçat and Henri Matisse)
- Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchmap (with Le Corbusier), and,
- The Sacré-Coeur in Audincourt (with Fernand Léger)
During his tour, the priest showed the patrons that religious art is the “visible face” of the Church and reflects the condition of her spirituality. In response, Dominque said, “We saw what a great master can do for a religious building when he is given a free hand. He can exalt and uplift as no one else.”
Opened in 1972, Rothko Chapel now exists as a sacred space open to all, every day, to:
- inspire people to action through art and contemplation,
- nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and
- provide a forum for global concerns.
During my tours of the Chapel, I tell visitors arriving from local schools and around the world: “This is a safe space to contemplate and celebrate art, spirituality and social justice.“
Rothko Chapel also a bit of a non sequitur.
While designed by Philip Johnson as a chapel, complete with vestry and an apse, the space confuses especially younger visitors when they don’t see traditional aspects of a place of worship, such as stained glass. The Chapel hosts weddings, funerals and religious services, but without photography or flowers.
Another aspect of the Chapel that confronts visitors’ sense of normalcy is the aesthetic created by Mark Rothko‘s 14 masterpieces considered by The New York Times as “perhaps his greatest undertaking.” When I first started volunteering at Rothko Chapel, my mom worried that the “black” paintings would depress me. In truth, each painting is a concoction of red and blue pigment, egg, rabbit-skin glue, turpentine and oil paint. Rothko mixed the brew each day in secret and created hues unique to each piece, the largest measuring 15’x 9′. In keeping with Rothko’s color field paintings, these are purely abstract; however, multiple visitors swear they see images, ranging from a Christ figure to the word “peace.”
One of the most common misconceptions about the paintings is that their saturated inkiness reflects Rothko’s alcoholism, heart aneurysm and family estrangement during the time he painted them. Leading a private tour of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s Rothko retrospective several years ago, Chapel board chair and the artist’s son Christopher Rothko debunked that myth. He explained that the shift in color field paintings from bright to monochromatic, somber shades hinged on the viewer, not the artist. Rothko wanted to stretch our capacities for contemplation; the darker tones, he believed, required greater attention and held the possibility for deeper reflection. As a cub scout told me during a tour one day: “You have to be really still before the paintings open up to you.”
Finally, I find Rothko’s atheism the most interesting non sequitur in relation to the lifelong desire for a chapel to house his oeuvre. Rothko dragged his mother to synagogue as a child, sometimes twice a day, to later abandon any faith. And yet the artist described painting as spiritual experience and he wanted all who viewed his work to share in that experience. Additionally, a 600 AD church inspired Rothko’s Chapel paintings. According to Annie Cohen-Solal in Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel:
Though Rothko most rejected any analogy of religious art to his work, he did mention to Dominique de Menil the strong impression the Byzantine church of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, near Venice, made on him. He had been deeply shaken by the mosaic of the Last Judgement over the altar, but his fears were soon swept away by the sight of the gold-background Madonna and Child opposite the altar, in the apse. This was precisely the tension, between condemnation and promise, “tragedy and hope,” he sought to re-create in Houston.
Three miles away from Rothko Chapel, doctors and nurses at MD Anderson stand in this same gap between tragedy and hope, as do the patients they serve. I am grateful to be one of them and that all indications point to hope in my diagnosis.