I confess, I enjoy coming to MD Anderson each week. I think it’s because everyone here is trying so hard. The staff, the patients, the families – we’re all on the same boat paddling in the same general direction, which tends to make us kind and empathetic with one another, too. Today a fellow patient exited the elevator before turning around to touch my arm and say, “You look beautiful and make me not afraid to lose my hair.” These people are my new tribe.
My day starts off with the phlebotomists (such a fun word to say) on the second floor of the Mayes Clinic, and the best of the best is Michelle. She’s the department head who strives for unity among her team and is the mother figure for all of us in their care. She joyfully calls our names, welcomes us with love and sends us off with a pat and “God bless you, baby.” Today, I enjoyed the rare privilege of having my blood drawn by Michelle. She pulled the curtain on our little lab/cubicle and I could’ve stayed there all day.
Next, I get my port accessed. This means going to the eighth floor and getting a needle stuck into the port residing just under my skin into which a catheter is placed for chemo. This is also where I enjoy watching the sun rise over the Med Center. My next stop is always the library, a brief, indoor shuttle ride across the bridge to the Main Building. Saryah is a dream librarian and has my back. When I walked in today, she pulled out a book she’s been saving for me in a “super secret space.” To be known and cared for during this phase of my life – #mytribematters.
A tribe member from a previous phase in my life was today’s #comewithCarrietochemo buddy. “Larson, J” (aka Jenn Larson Rienstra), sister of “Larson, E” (aka Ellen Larson Collins), lived and played with me at the Tri Delta house at SMU back in the day. Jenn reminds me of a self-deprecating Amy Poehler and her humor, combined with her faithfulness (lived out by patiently calling me until I finally check voice mail and call back) created an alchemy that made chemo end too quickly. She brought trashy magazines, a plush blanket, beautiful art calendar and a necklace designed and made by another SMU Tri Delta, Jennifer Foley Pleasants. Foley founded Show the Love jewelry and imbues each piece with a sentiment meant to inspire and uplift the wearer, which this one – designed for cancer patients – certainly did.
Jen designed this piece when Ellen fought and beat triple negative breast cancer six years ago. Ellen and Jenn advocate for breast cancer research and you can support them by joining their Avon Walk support team.
Before meeting Jenn for chemo, I stopped by the chapel for a quiet moment. At the entrance is The Thanksgiving Tree, a rattan structure on which people “fill out a thanksgiving card and give thanks for a loved one to celebrate our blessings, staff, patients and families.” Just as there are few atheists in fox holes, these notes reflected pleas for healing, as well.
Inside, I sat for a few minutes, praying and watching all walks of life come and go, sitting and kneeling in pews scattered with boxes of Kleenex. A beautiful piece of wood art – Noah’s ark moored on Mount Ararat beneath a rainbow – lines one wall and appropriately signifies the promised deliverance from a ravaging flood. Additionally, the stained glass reminded me of the art of Georges Rouault, a former glass painter’s apprentice whose work evokes the broad, black demarcations incorporated in sacred windows.
Rouault, a late-nineteenth-century French painter, was a devout Catholic and is considered one of the most important religious artists of the 20th century – despite the fact that the Church originally decried the his dark, gloomy color palettes. One of Rouault’s most famous works is a series of etchings called Miserere et Guerre, which expressed his intense compassion for the marginalized and underprivileged. The plaque accompanying the above painting in the Pompidou reads:
Among but not of the Fauves of the early 20th century, Georges Rouault offered a distinctive French take on Expressionism with watercolours of great virtuosity. The circus entertainers he often took as his subject offered an opportunity to denounce indifference to the plight of the powerless. Rouault brought the same compassionate eye to the people of the traveling fairs and to the prostitutes oppressed and exploited by a squalid and hypocritical society. His subjects were contemporary and so was his painting, making no concession to the pictorial taste of the general public. The impact of the Fauvist color is reinforced by black outlines that recall Rouault’s training as a stained-glass painter, while the nervy, hatched brushstrokes that characterize his style seem to be driven by the urgency of the matter.
Quoting a New York Times article, Rouault viewed himself as, “the silent friend of those who labor in the barren field, the ivy of eternal misery climbing the leprous wall behind which rebellious humanity hides its virtues and its vice,” recalling images of immigrants banned from entry into America this week.
I am grateful for my many friends who are not silent, but cover me with prayer, meals, notes and grace, including Lance and Melody Barbin who stuffed my fridge with the dinner that greeted me when I returned home from MD Anderson. I can totally see the inside of my fridge depicted in a Rouault-inspired painting, with thick, linear separations between shelves of Tupperware containers Melody labeled with her vegan eggplant rigatoni, green beans almondine, arugula salad with homemade dressing, olives and feta with crackers to enjoy while the rolls bake and lemon raspberry Italian sparkling water and or alkaline water to wash it all down. My not-silent friends, including but not limited to Michelle, Saryah, the Barbins, the Larson Sisters, Jen Foley and Teri Gerber (who sent me home with a feast from Kenny & Ziggy’s and her homemade vegetable lasagna) indelibly stain my heart and mind. One silver lining of this experience is reflecting on the incredible tribe I’ve collected along the way, which continues to light and enlighten my path.
To enjoy more of Rouault’s oeuvre, watch this slide show of his work set to the heavenly Cherubic Hymn (No. 7) by Dmitry Bortniansky. And if you need help with job placement, please call my friend Jenn Larson Rientsra.