[Most friends/fans of The SCAR Project are familiar with this beautiful face. Many of you followed Vanessa Tiemeier’s journey via The Live Sincerely Project. This week marks the second anniversary of her passing. It has been a rough week for her family, the SCAR family/community, and all of us who loved the girl who put the V in living sincerely and left a V-shaped hole behind, in our hearts. For me, Facebook has been reminding me of all the lasts I got to have with her. #everydamnday. Like I’d forget or something. I haven’t forgotten, nor have I gotten over losing her presence in this world and in my life. And I hope I never do cuz how shallow would that be of me? Recently I was asked to write an article about Vanessa for SoHza magazine, honoring her memory. I thought I’d share an extended version of it here, along with a few extra pictures, because even though Facebook posted the last last on Feb. 23 when she took her last breath and went to her rest, I’m not done. Remembering V. I can’t write Vanessa’s SCAR story from her perspective. I hope someday to share her SCAR story from her husband Billy’s and her sisters’ Jess and Christina’s perspectives on this space. But in the meantime, in memory of Vanessa and in the spirit of living sincerely, here’s my story about my beautiful friend V.]
by Joules Evans
You know how a yes or no decision can sometimes feel like a coin toss…but then that yes or no somehow sends out some kind of a ripple effect that alters your course? Or how randomly bumping into a beautiful stranger at an art gallery in NYC can sincerely change your life? That’s what happened to me on a Saturday afternoon in October of 2010 when I got invited on a roadtrip to the Big Apple to see the world premiere of The SCAR Project and met Vanessa Tiemeier.
It was a Saturday afternoon on my first day in the city that never sleeps, and I was feeling the energy as I stepped into the holy hush of the exhibit, to take a private gallery tour with SCAR Project photographer David Jay and a few of the models who were on hand. I really didn’t know what I was walking into. It seemed like such a simple left turn into the gallery off Soho, but it ended up being more of that proverbial left that I shoulda taken in Albuquerque. And am so glad I did.
When my friend Shelly invited me to go to the opening with her during chemo one day, I remember thinking that I was already pretty breast cancer aware. I didn’t even Google The SCAR Project because really all I heard when she asked me to go with her was ROADTRIP TO NYC. Which meant, 10 hours in the car not the chemo lounge, and a weekend in the Big Apple that would take girls night out to a whole new level.
When I walked into the gallery and face to face with SCAR Emily’s portrait, I realized I was not as breast cancer aware as I thought I was. She was baring her scars AND a pregnant belly.
Her absolute reality, surviving cancer, was a completely different story than mine. Since I was 41 when I was diagnosed, I had already had my children, nursed my babies; they were all teenagers at that point in my journey. Emily had faced cancer, and was facing me, with child, without breasts.
And then I met Vanessa.
She and her husband Billy were standing beside her SCAR portrait. When she shared her SCAR story, I learned more about her absolute reality of surviving cancer. SCAR stands for Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality. It’s an awareness campaign that young women can and do get breast cancer.
Vanessa’s absolute reality of surviving cancer was completely different from both mine, and Emily’s. The truth is, everybody’s is. But I had never thought about it like that because I only knew my own reality. Bumping into Vanessa that day 5 years ago cracked me and mine wide open.
Vanessa was only 25, newly married, and she and Billy were ready to begin filling the quiver…when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Vanessa had always dreamed of a really full quiver. She and her sisters, Jessica and Christina, were always very close, both growing up, and as grown-ups. They’d even started a graphic design business called Blustery Day Design together. Vanessa wanted all that and more, for the children she dreamed of having.
Prior to that opening of the exhibit, Vanessa had already fought a second battle with the disease, bared her (new and old) scars again by posing for a second SCAR photograph, and shared her SCAR story in the EMMY award-winning SCAR documentary, Baring It All, by Patricia Zagarella.
The SCAR Project meant so much to Vanessa, because, as she told me many times, being a graphic designer, she was way more visual than verbal, and this was the best way she could articulate her new reality. It was her way of showing the world what a young woman’s absolute reality of surviving cancer really looked like.
A broken pinky finger, slammed in a drawer, and one precautionary Pet Scan later—which “lit up like a Christmas tree”—ended up as a Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. I don’t know what that feels like and I hope I never do, but she told me what it felt like to her. “I used to be super upbeat and positive like you after getting knocked around by breast cancer the first time. But the ultimate blow of hearing it’s back is a whole another story. Not so pink and fuzzy. Or hopeful. There is no cure. There is no finish line. There is only fight for your life for the rest of your life.”
The thing about Vanessa was that even though she knew she was living on “borrowed time” she was not going down without one helluva fight, nor having wasted that precious gift of time. Her mantra was LIVE SINCERELY, which she had tattooed on her left calf, with a pink peony, her favorite flower. That was her pink ribbon. Her message was basically, “don’t wait till you find out you are dying to really live.” This is how she lived and loved and fought. Fierce. Both for herself, and for other young women like her.
And there she was, standing beside her SCAR portrait, sharing her SCAR story.
When she mentioned she was from Cincinnati, something sparked in me. As much as she was standing there, literally, beside herself, next to her portrait, I was feeling quite beside myself, to tell her that I was also a survivor from Cincinnati. I told her how moved I was by the exhibit, her SCAR portrait and story, not to mention the crazy beautiful serendipity of our meeting…and would she like to work together to try and bring the exhibit to Cincinnati? “Yes,” she said, simply. “Let’s bring it.”
Somehow we did. Neither of us had ever done anything like producing a breast cancer event, let alone a major art exhibit before. We really didn’t know what we were doing. We fumbled around trying to find a proper venue for quite awhile. But then we met Litsa Spanos, owner of Art Design Consultants. When she heard about The SCAR Project, she offered to host the exhibit at her gorgeous “Gallery in the Sky” downtown.
But it almost didn’t. After 6 months of intense planning. Two weeks before the opening of our Cincinnati SCAR exhibit, Vanessa, who’d been dealing with severe headaches, got a bad report from the scans. The disease had spread to the lining of her brain, requiring immediate radiation. We talked about canceling the exhibit but Vanessa’s response to that was basically “the show must go on.”
Somehow it did. All I know is that we were an awesome team. We ended up raising $13,500 for our chosen local beneficiary: The Pink Ribbon Girls, and $7,500 for The SCAR Project. All I know is it had everything to do with Vanessa putting herself out there as the face of young breast cancer in Cincinnati. All I know was getting to work with Vanessa on something so beautiful and so much bigger that us all, changed my life. And I know Litsa feels the same way.
All I know is when the cancer wouldn’t back down, went to her brain, and kept progressing, Vanessa didn’t back down one bit either. She and her sisters created The Live Sincerely Project, to be her legacy, based on her motto. She spent the rest of her days sharing the project and encouraging people to take the pledge. A few of my last memories of my beautiful friend Vanessa, were of her hoping her movement would keep spreading, of her checking to see where in the world people had taken the pledge to Live Sincerely, and of her making 100’s of Live Sincerely signs with different fonts and borders. All I know is: Take that cancer. Vanessa won; you lost. She is free of you now but lives on in the hearts of everyone who was lucky like me to know her, or who will hear about Vanessa through The SCAR Project or her Live Sincerely Project. All I know is that despite everything you tried to throw at her, she still left a beauty mark that she was here.
When I think of Vanessa, I think she answered the poet Mary Oliver’s most poignant question so beautifully: “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” Live Sincerely.