April 18th seemed eons away when I sat with Brad the Pharmacist last fall to learn about my chemotherapy protocol: Taxol once a week for 12 weeks, the “Red Devil” once every three weeks for 4 treatments. Along the way, I spent four days in the hospital for fever, received a Neulasta patch three times to elevate my white blood cell counts and met some of the best people on the planet. I’m so grateful for those doing God’s work at MD Anderson and made an effort to stop by and tell them so on Tuesday, my last day of chemo.
Michelle leads the blood draw area and calls us all by name when it’s our turn. However, she calls me with, “Carrie Pillsbury, come on down!” or “Carrie Pillsbury, it’s your turn to shine!” Robin (center) greets me each morning with the largest smile and hug as I get out of the car. She’s an angel. And Saryah (right) holds books back for me and never disappoints as MD Anderson’s librarian.
I pulled up to MD Anderson on April 18th in Sarah Gish’s art car, Phoenix Rising. She volunteered to always be on hand and made me feel as if I was doing her a favor when I asked for a ride at the last minute. She even made me a piece of art! Valerie met me to interpret the doctor’s appointment and obtain better anti-nausea medicine, then Cully arrived with my son – thrilled to be missing school. While Valerie and Cully held down the fort by a lovely water wall beside a volunteer playing the grand piano, I toured Hampton around the complex, introducing him to people and places dear to me over the past six months. He loved the indoor shuttle ride between buildings and Kim’s Place, a teen lounge with video games and a “Pop a Shot” on which he scored 50 points.
At 3 pm, my chemo began and the rest of my tribe began packing in to the Standing Room Only space (mocking the “One Visitor Only, Please,” sign. I slept next to Eliza some of the time, while the nurse administered the IV medications and asked to hide the Prosecco bottle. I looked out from my bed and this is what I saw:
A small portion of those who carried me through this experience. While these are the ones who blocked off their day to join me, there are so many more who flew in (Candy, Julie) drove in (Lance, Susan) and sacrificed their day to sit with me (Jay, Mom, Sarah, Valerie, Ellen, Jenn, Pam, Mark). Even more volunteered to come. Susan Ashton sent me a letter EVERY DAY since my diagnosis – with Deep Thoughts from Jack Handy and other anecdotes to cheer me up. Every note, letter, text, FB post/message and gift softened the burdens associated with a port, baldness and feeling yucky.
After the last drop of chemo, our group moved to the bell ringing room for the surreal moment for which I’d waited so long. Ellen face-timed in on Valerie’s phone (Louise requested to and I couldn’t make it happen) and we all rejoiced together. You can watch the :45 second video here. We then migrated to HopDaddy in Rice Village for a quick celebration and they gave me a $25 gift card in honor of the day. Here are a few of the images I took to remember…
Looking back over the past six months, a highlight (in addition to the brigade of friends and arrival of delicious meals) was a weekly text from Lance Barbin. He and I hosted a daily “radio show” from the friendly confines of Mrs. Coulter’s seventh grade art class at Hubbard Middle School. Lance was the “talent,” I the “producer” and, together, we organized tables of students to sing Top 40 hits as we made rice mosaics, among other masterpieces. You can enjoy the actual versions of these songs Lance sent every Tuesday via this “Come with Carrie to Chemo” playlist on Spotify.
Additionally, my work’s willingness to offer such flexibility ranks up there among my greatest blessings, as does the support I receive when there. The only opposition I met came when I tried to apply for short-tern-disability during a particularly low time when I felt guilty for not pulling my weight. The two powers-that-be basically told me to shut up and not bring it up again.
The support continues when I walk downstairs, receiving love from Florida and Tiffany – the building’s (praying) security guards. The day before my final treatment, I walked to the cafeteria for a Diet Coke and my tribe who serves us daily realized I was emotional. First, Brittany hugged me, which drew Jeremiah’s attention and before I knew it, we were holding hands as Jeremiah lifted me up in the most beautiful prayer. My weeping dissipated from weariness to wonder at the love. One day, I hope to fully take in how my every need has been met by an army of living angels.
Tactically speaking, I meet with the plastic surgeon on Tuesday and the anesthesiologist in May, followed by chest X-rays, EKGs, blood work, mammogram and ultrasound, and dye injected into my sentinel node under my right arm to confirm the cancer hasn’t spread. Surgery is scheduled for May 19th.
Russian artist Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943) was also very fond of ringing bells. The son of a rural parish priest, he grew up hearing church bells summoning faithful to services or announcing community events. After the Soviet government seized and destroyed Russian Orthodox church bells in 1914, Lentulov created his own makeshift versions with rope and an iron stove poker. (The ban on bells lasted until Gorbachev lessened restrictions on religion in 1989).
In his 1915 mixed media piece “The Ringing,” Lentulov perhaps makes a political statement by capturing on canvas the pealing of bells. We see a silhouetted figure in the center of Moscow’s Ivan the Great Bell Tower, swinging at the 70-ton Assumption Bell overhead, the clapper’s movement depicted in black diagonal lines. Squiggly, orange sound waves pulse horizontally throughout several sections of the work, while spheres of sound overlay the architectural structure. The entire piece reverberates with energy and light, as ringing tones emanate in prismatic hues off the sides of the painting, evoking the sense that the sound goes on and on.
Lentulov was first exposed to Cubism and Oprhism (a genre of art combining Cubism with a heightened use of light and color) while studying in Paris in the early 1900s. One can see influences on Lentulov’s work by the most well known Orphism artists, Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Returning to Russia in 1909, Lentulov and his peers exhibited work informed by the Western world in an exhibit called “Jack of Diamonds.” According to russianavantgarde.com, diamonds were associated with prison uniforms and the playing card Jack was a well-known symbol of art since the Italian Renaissance. This group of rebel artists set out to challenge the public’s perception of fine art by using bright colors mixed with traces of traditional Russian lubok woodprints.
Cathy Locke, an expert on Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries explains:
The group consisted of painters from both Moscow and near by provinces. Most of the members were students at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. The key players in the movement were: Ilya Mashkov, Petr Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexander Kuprin, Robert Flak and Vasily Rozhdestvensky. They were all admirers of modern French painters and they frequented the house of Sergei Shchukin where they were able to study canvases by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse.
I was privileged to see Sergei Ivanovich Shcukin‘s collection in January at the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s “Icons of Modern Art” exhibit. Shchukin, an industrialist and “collector hero,” amassed in the early 1900s Russia’s greatest collection of Western art and, in doing so, provided Russian artists a window into the art world beyond their borders. After befriending and buying from the likes of Monét, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin and Picasso, Shcukin stacked pieces of art on every wall in his estate, which he opened to the public for their enjoyment. At the time, his purchases of Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism would have shocked visitors, yet inspired the country’s emerging artists.
In 1911, Lenin nationalized Shcukin’s collection, exhibiting the works at the State Museum of Western Modern Art until Stalin declared it all too “bourgeois.” The 130 paintings are now split between the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Wikipedia actually has a nice site on the importance of bells to the people of Russia, stating the bells are not only practical, but spiritual, “alloyed with divine grace to disperse and destroy the forces of cruelty and of demonic suggestion.” For me, ringing the bell on Tuesday was definitely spiritual, a moment to reflect on how chemo has destroyed cancer cells and the divine grace I’ve received in the process.
Watch this CBS News story about the return of church bells to the Danilov monastery in Moscow from Harvard University, where they were kept safe during the Soviet Revolution. This video is also a hypnotic tour of Russia via its Orthodox bell ringing. And for a laugh, here’s Houston Texans’ David Quessenberry ringing (and breaking) the bell at MD Anderson after finishing chemo just last week.