[Follow-up guest post and recap of The SCAR BAMA Exhibition. This article is posted with permission from SCAR girl Sara’s blog and that link can be found HERE.]
by Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton
It has been over a week since I got back…it has taken me this long to try to digest it. I think I have been avoiding it because I am left with so many questions and so many hopes…and yet I know the reality of the situation as well. I apologize in advance for the bouncing around that is about to occur. You’ll get two gold stars if you follow me to the end…
I honestly did not plan to go to the exhibit in Birmingham, Alabama. It was three weeks after my extraction. Before my surgery, I assumed I wouldn’t be ready to be in front of people…after surgery, I thought I wouldn’t be feeling well enough to go. But then, Billy posted in the SCAR girls page that he had just booked tickets for himself and Vanessa. I should have known in that moment.
I first met Billy and Vanessa in Cincinnati. Billy is the ultimate host and Vanessa is the epitome of glamour. Hubby and I talked on the way home how we wished we lived closer because we enjoyed their company so much. Who doesn’t love a couple who hike all over the city trying to find you food, only to have to pack up and hit a White Castle and have lots of laughs while doing it! It was shortly after the exhibit that Vanessa started to decline in health, her cancer had returned and had spread to the lining in her brain…and then her brain.
|Live Sincerely party on the Purple People Bridge|
Vanessa has a motto – live sincerely. She started posting more and more about this motto, what this means. She and her sisters developed a website. And then she invited everyone to a Live Sincerely party on the Purple People Bridge. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect that day. Vanessa was going through treatments…major treatments. I am quite certain I was one of those lame people who talked louder so she could understand me because that was so helpful…and I was uncomfortable with both Vanessa and Billy, unsure of what to say, and kind of hung out in the background. In reality, I was struggling with a few things that day. But that day was a turning point for me. I was truly trying to take one day at a time and was still having a hard time doing so. Watching the interactions and the love…watching the intent. It moved me deeply.
|Live Sincerely – spelled out in luminaries|
In the fall, the same gallery that hosted the SCAR project hosted Angelo Merendino and his exhibit, The Battle We Didn’t Choose. Vanessa had traveled to Cleveland and loved the exhibit and Angelo. It was brought to the gallery for her birthday. It was so special to watch Vanessa. It was hard not to notice the obvious connection between Vanessa and the exhibit. It seemed as though Vanessa was showing the rest of us what daily life might be looking like for her and Billy. I talked with Vanessa about what her favorite photo was…her all pink accessorized outfit…Live Sincerely (of course)…and watched her delight as she looked down to see the luminaries spelling out her motto.
|The beautiful birthday girl|
What do you get a birthday girl who is Stage IV and trying to show the rest of us how to embrace life and live sincerely? I couldn’t come up with a great idea so I came up with a dumb one instead…a life size Hello Kitty balloon. I was kind of worried it would scare her…thankfully, it didn’t and thankfully it didn’t terrify their dog and I found out in Birmingham Hello Kitty is still going…not too strong but her head is still inflated…um, that’s three or four months later?!? That’s the best dumb birthday gift I’ve ever come up with.
I will be honest…every trip I have gone on, I prepare myself that this will probably be the last time I get to see Vanessa. I go into it thinking this and I think this is why I become so awkward around her. I don’t want her to know I am thinking this…so I act like a kid trying to hide something naughty they have done.
This trip, it was different. Maybe, I am different. Since that day on the Purple People Bridge, I have challenged myself to think differently. To truly see the blessings, no matter how big or small, around me. To truly live in the moment, not in the past, not in the future…live in the present. So, for me, although at that moment I didn’t realize there was a shift in my brain, I saw Billy’s post and saw an opportunity to spend precious time with someone who has tremendously impacted my view on the world. It also seemed fairly miraculous in itself – I cried when the DC exhibit had been postponed because, in all sincerity, I thought it would be the last exhibit Vanessa would have been able to attend. So, here was the Birmingham exhibit and Vanessa and Billy were going. I woke up the Friday before with a sense of needing to be in Birmingham. I am incredibly thankful I listen to my spirit…I am incredibly thankful for a husband who supports me listening to my spirit.
|Vanessa & me with Flat Jolene|
My mission in Birmingham: Project Vanessa. I took the opportunity to be with Billy and Vanessa seriously…as serious as one can be when Billy is in the room. I felt incredibly blessed to be in the same state as them for multiple days, let alone the same hotel. And, lest anyone become concerned I was stalking them…well, I kind of was? But it seemed like they were both fairly okay with it.
When I first saw Vanessa in Birmingham, she looked so healthy. Yes, I see she looks different than when I first met her but she also seemed less tired or worn down than when I have seen her this past year. It took me by surprise, actually. And it made me pause…I had already been struggling with my thoughts. Over the past year, as I mentioned, I kept seeing Vanessa and thinking it was the last time I would see her. I began to consider that I was counting her out and she is still here. It frustrated me…I don’t want to do that…and I know Vanessa wouldn’t want me to do that.
It reminds me of a time in high school. I was brought to a hospital about an hour from where I lived…I was brought there to say goodbye to an aunt who had ovarian cancer. I was too young to remember how long she was in that hospital or how long it took but my aunt is alive and well today. And I began to wonder…why have I stopped believing in miracles? Why have I automatically assumed it won’t happen? I know I believed it couldn’t…I am unsure what I believe today.
|He was supposed to be taking the photo of Vanessa and me…BILLY!|
Vanessa was anxious to get to the gallery…we all were. Unfortunately, my group got a bit…well….lost. So, by the time we made it, Vanessa and Billy were on the hunt for food…Project Vanessa was not going well! (I just wondered, perhaps Billy had his own covert mission: operation avoid me!!) It was probably a good thing my group was so late…it made it much easier to find a spot to hide as I cried. It is a regular thing for me…surrounded by the beauty and strength of my SCAR sisters photos resorts me to tears. This time, it was a bit different because I feel different…as if those sisters are the only ones who truly can understand where I stand today…and a bit of gratitude mixed in…sensing I was exactly where I was meant to be in that moment.
Thankfully for me (and Project Vanessa) some of us met for dinner. I made myself a nuisance and sat directly across from Vanessa and Billy. It was the first of many conversations Vanessa and I (and Billy) had over the weekend. Yes, there were times where she repeated a story…like telling me about the leg warmers she was excited to have for the exhibit and thought she had misplaced. But it didn’t bother her when she asked me if she had told me about it yet and I answered honestly, yes. We just moved on. I watched as she took pictures…I don’t know how to describe it. It would seem almost like an OCD behavior but, at the same time, she was okay if she was encouraged to just stay in her seat and relax. I got to hear about her trip to Ten Thousand Villages to purchase ornaments for her nephews. She was so excited as she told me the process of picking them out (and getting to go in the back room to see the ones not on the floor yet) and how special it would be as they open them up even when she is no longer here. Yes, she openly says this…and, in a way, it was a relief – acknowledging this humongous elephant in the room. And, yet, we just moved on. I explained how I do the same thing with my kids – a special ornament every year and how they love it…every year, they are most excited to unwrap the ornaments that are their’s and hang them on the tree. Vanessa said she hopes it will be the same for her nephews.
Selfishly, I was relieved when she called me by name. Over the past year, I have assumed Vanessa didn’t know who I was. Yes, I met her before her health deteriorated but it isn’t as if we spent a lot of time together then. I have interacted with her over the internet but it isn’t the same. She has had a lot going on, she has been through a lot, it would have seemed totally normal to me if one day she looked at me and asked me who I was and why do I insist on following her around. So, to hear her say, Sara….it meant a lot…priceless, actually.
|Bacon lollipops – Vanessa gave them two thumbs up!|
The rest of the time, I just followed Billy and Vanessa’s lead. We ate breakfast together at the hotel. I got to see how Vanessa’s tastebuds might be a bit…off. It reminded me of the movie Elf (and yes, I told Vanessa and Billy this). Where Buddy (the Elf) puts syrup on spaghetti and is addicted to sugar. Vanessa made hot chocolate and then put sugar and cream in it. She ate waffles and needed cinnamon and sugar and syrup in each of the squares (actually, I have been known to try to have the same ratio with waffles and syrup). While Vanessa was eating her waffles, she talked about all kinds of things. I got to hear about the first time she met Billy…she talked about her wedding day and how Billy may come by being a smart alec quite naturally. It was so special to hear about all these memories Vanessa has…and interesting to watch her remember them but not quite remember if she had told me about those leg warmers yet.
At one of the breakfast dates, I asked Vanessa if I could look through her camera. After watching her at dinner, I knew her card must be overflowing. I wanted to get a glimpse at what she is thinking about, what is catching her eye. She graciously allowed me to look. It was fairly remarkable. I got to see the last several weeks of her life…some pictures that reminded me of the tag project but there were so many others that, well, they kind of took my breath away. What I saw must be what day to day life looks like when you actually pay attention. The details of a room…the artwork, the flower arrangements, the colors. The things we do to “finish” a look but then never pay attention to them again. Vanessa and Billy had gone to a restaurant called the Mellow Mushroom. Vanessa took all these photos of all these things in the restaurant. I went to the restaurant later in the weekend and it took me a bit to realize, I am sitting among Vanessa’s photos. She also had photos of an iron, standing up, laying down. Pictures like that. But I enjoyed the opportunity to see where her brain is at right now and watching it unfold in her pictures.
I tried not to pry. I asked how she slept, I would ask Billy how he was doing. When I got the canned answers, I let it be. I offered to take Vanessa with me to the store, I understood when the answer was she probably wasn’t up for it. I wanted to help and understood that helping might be just being present when asked. And I enjoyed every moment I could, listening to Vanessa, talking with her, helping her. It was beautiful.
|Vanessa reading her speech – that’s me holding the poster she made|
I watched with pride as Vanessa read her speech to the guests at the gala. Vanessa and I talked multiple times about how she didn’t want anyone to be upset she was reading her speech. She had written it beforehand because she wanted to be sure she remembered everything she wanted to say. I reassured her multiple times, people want to hear from you, they aren’t going to care that you are reading it. I was so happy when she gifted our new SCAR sister Leah with the Live Sincerely poster she had made. Vanessa was so excited about it. When I was arriving in Birmingham, Billy had texted me they were at a UPS making this poster. Vanessa had told me multiple times she would not be able to get it home and she wanted to leave it in Alabama with one of the local SCAR sisters. In fact, Vanessa was a bit concerned after her speech and after she explained she was giving Leah her poster that no one was coming up to take their pictures with it. Was Vanessa unaware of the people around her crying? the impact her speech had? I was too focused on holding that poster and listening to her speech and willing myself to think only about what was happening in the moment but I knew everyone was incredibly moved and just needed a minute to recover. Don’t worry, they will…they just need a minute. (And if you did, please make Vanessa’s day and go post your photos at her website!)
Even as I have been writing and rewriting this post…I have had a mix of laughter and tears. Much like the bitter-sweetness of the weekend, though, thankfully, I contained my tears to the one time at the gallery. Being thankful Vanessa was there, being slapped back to reality to hear Billy say it may just be him at the next exhibit.
I don’t have a grand finale for this post. In my mind, I still have many questions that may never be answered. Yes, I think about the miracle that occurred in my aunt’s life and I am now praying for the same miracle in Vanessa’s life. At the same time, I comprehend, as much as I am able to, how grim the situation is. Vanessa has cancer in her brain that is growing. The miracle of restored health, it might not happen. I am beginning to realize giving up on the belief of miracles may be a way in which to protect myself when it doesn’t come to fruition. Much like I have approached the times I have seen Vanessa over the past year as the “last time”. Because, if I prepare myself, it won’t hurt as much? In essence, it created a barrier between us and I am immensely thankful that barrier was not in Birmingham.
Perhaps, the weekend in Birmingham was the ultimate lesson in Vanessa’s guide to Live Sincerely. I got to spend an incredible time with her (and Billy) but I had to live sincerely doing it. There were no tears over Vanessa, there was no guarantee of a next time. It was living sincerely in the moment and being thankful for that moment.
|Clowning with my sisters|
Vanessa~ Thank you…from the bottom of my heart and soul, thank you. I love you~Sara
Updated to include a link to The Live Sincerely Project post in which Vanessa’s sister, Jessica, mentions part of my post. It is a great post that touches some of the same feelings I have…but be sure to check out the family photos at the end – hilarious!
[Today’s guest post about The Alabama Project is by Cynthia Ryan. Cynthia is one of the co-producers of the upcoming dual exhibition in Birmingham, Alabama. The Alabama Project Exhibition will accompany The SCAR Project Exhibition at University of Alabama’s Visual Arts Gallery during its commemoration of the Civil Rights 50th Anniversary. Cynthia Ryan, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a freelance writer. Check out her blog HERE. Besides all that, she also has been quite busy personally kicking breast cancer’s ass for the past 20 years. Namaste Cynthia. *Bows to your awesomeness* as I humbly hand you the microphone, the quill, the keyboard if you will. P.S. thank you.]
Guest Post by Cynthia Ryan
At 49, I’m twenty years into survivorship following my first bout with breast cancer. It’s been quite a ride, made all the more interesting since I joined The Alabama Project.
In September, David contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in writing about the experiences of five young breast cancer survivors from my adopted state of Alabama. He’d traveled to Birmingham and surrounding communities to photograph Leah, Brittney, Melanie, Whitni and Raquel, all diagnosed in their teens or twenties. These photos were different than the portraits associated with The Scar Project. They documented Alabama survivors going about their everyday lives, and all had stories to share regarding their unique journeys through the disease.
Taking on the challenges of survivorship day by day was an approach I knew something about. At 29, breast cancer became the backdrop to everything in my life. While existential questions about the meaning of life and death lingered, I had no choice but to preoccupy myself with the matters of surviving.
As many survivors will tell you, time and energy are swallowed up by the breast cancer experience. Visits to oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, social workers. Arrangements with family and friends for transport to said appointments and assistance with daily responsibilities as exhaustion and frustration settle in. Treasured downtime to heal body and soul.
By the time I reached 40 and a second diagnosis of breast cancer, my plate runneth over. Married with two daughters, 5-year-old Celia and 2-year-old Helena. A full-time job and pressure to keep on publishing. A new city and no extended family in sight.
It’s the getting through the everyday that challenges many breast cancer survivors and their loved ones and that, too often, gets relegated to the trivial. After all, we survivors are reminded to keep our minds on the big picture—completing recommended therapies, accepting a new normal, moving forward with our lives after breast cancer. Learning how to navigate the initial diagnosis and treatment plan and how to reach what lies beyond with our senses in-tact is far from peripheral, though. It’s as much a part of living as the promised restitution that may or may not become a reality for many of us.
Through the eyes of the Alabama women, I’ve discovered the kind of strength that every breast cancer survivor demonstrates both because she recognizes the importance of the life lessons the experience presents and because she must. Painful procedures must be endured. Bills must, somehow, be paid, with or without the grace of health insurance. Hope must be offered to our children. A new image must be confronted in the mirror.
[The Birmingham Exhibition will premiere January 7 and run till January 31. For more info, check out the press release HERE.]
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
THE SCAR PROJECT: BREAST CANCER IS NOT A PINK RIBBON
THE ALABAMA PROJECT: THE CIVIL RIGHTS OF HEALTH CARE
TO PREMIERE IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA JANUARY 7-31, 2013
Birmingham, Alabama—December 6, 2012—Two groundbreaking photographic exhibitions shot by fashion photographer David Jay are set to premiere at University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Visual Arts Gallery: The SCAR Project: Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon and The Alabama Project: The Civil Rights of Health Care.
The dual exhibition opens January 7 and runs through January 31, 2013. There will be a ticketed opening night gala on January 11, 5-9pm. General admission to the exhibitions, is free. Private gallery tours with photographer David Jay will be available. Regular screenings of Baring It All, the EMMY Award winning documentary about The SCAR Project will be shown throughout the exhibition.
The SCAR Project is a series of large-scale portraits of young women confronting breast cancer shot by fashion photographer David Jay. The SCAR Project puts a raw, unflinching face on young women and breast cancer while paying tribute to the courage and spirit of the many brave, young women fighting this disease. The SCAR Project subjects range in age from 18-35 and represent the often overlooked, group of young women living with breast cancer in our country today. They’ve journeyed from across America and the world to be photographed for The SCAR Project. More than 100 women have been photographed thus far.
The Alabama Project: The Civil Rights of Health Care is a subset of The SCAR Project. In this project Jay documents a group of young women in Alabama, all in their twenties, battling not only breast cancer but the healthcare system itself. From hospital room to the living room, Jay’s poignant images capture each woman’s faith, perseverance, and beauty.
Producers: Cynthia Ryan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, UAB Birmingham & John Thomas Fields, Interim Director, UAB Visual Arts Gallery.
Sponsored by: University of Alabama at Birmingham, Susan G Komen North Central Alabama & Susan Mott Webb Charitable Trust
Contact: Cynthia Ryan email: firstname.lastname@example.org phone: 205.934.8600