“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” ― Nellie McClung

An ultrasound room seems an odd place to find joy. I would not go looking for it there. The place where tissue is extracted and examined for cells gone-rogue has qualities antithetical to human-magic. Cold and sticky gel is rubbed across bare skin while danger lurks on a glowing screen. Places you loved before are suddenly deemed suspect.  

As the technician led me down the hallway, I noticed the way her wavy hair was cut in a subtle, angular manner so when it draped down her back it fell into a V-shape. I didn’t know at the time it was likely a fresh cut for her wedding in Vermont the weekend before. She showed me where I could put my bag, overflowing with a heavy book and multiple other weighty items. I thought about how later I would be told I shouldn’t pick up anything heavier than a milk carton. I would carry my belongings out like a bag of groceries, not slung over my shoulder, as usual. Bending forward, I unzipped my mud-splattered boots and climbed onto the table imagining the experience might be restful. A rare luxury to lie-down, mid-day, in a dimly lit room. 

I was ill-prepared for the first biopsy, afterward canceling a full-day of activities, so I could crawl into bed with an ice pack. I rely heavily on a high pain-threshold and a can-do attitude to get through things I might do better to prepare for. I had not considered the signals my body would receive having three of these same procedures back-to-back. My sister described how my immune system might go on alert imagining it was under attack with each removal of a valuable part. 

What I was in-for started to become more-clear as the ultrasound wand was pressed down forcefully on my bare chest in the same bruised area where I’d had the previous excision. My arm, raised in an L-shape above my head, began shooting pins and needles into my hand even before we had begun.

The technician apologized for being silent for a long stretch as she mapped out the red and blue landscape of my inner world reflected like a military radar screen to my right. She lined up the suspicious locations of density like targets. l told her I welcomed the quiet. Her presence felt immediately familiar in the way of an old friend. Of the five women who would occupy the room, she seemed the most like a sister and in the days to come I would think of her. 

I heard an assistant come in and when I turned to look, I recognized the back of her frame as she quickly dove into her preparations. Her fuchsia scrubs were the only notable color in the room, and brightened the space, like a bouquet. When she finally turned toward me, her hair swung around at her chin. Her face reacted with happy recognition. 

I thought it might be you! 

I filled her in on the results from my previous test and watched as the space between her eyebrows contracted with concern. This has become a familiar facial expression in the people I share my experience with. Then she brightened, doling out affirmations of hope, like candy.

I couldn’t say her age, she wasn’t likely all that much older than me, but she brought the mother energy into the room. From beginning to end she filled up a halo of comfort around me with endless offerings of support. Her presence was like a siphon, keeping me fueled and abreast (no pun intended) of what was happening. She left the room to find a warmer, softer blanket, better, she thought, than what had already been draped over me. 

The radiologist came in like a force of nature, with a resident in her wake. She made a comment about how the doctor with her was fortunate to be on her service in a room full of women. We all laughed as she quickly pardoned herself, affirming the many capable men working in the hospital.

We were acquainted from the previous biopsy and she greeted me warmly then quickly switched gears, detailing her plan to the others. She was like a sergeant barking out orders, only kinder and with an upbeat energy. There was a lot to be accomplished. She had a commanding voice and presence I might have once found off-putting. I might have read her as brash or overconfident. I understand better now about what it takes. I understand about how many ways women have been taught to shrink and to be quiet, to dim what allows us to make a needed contribution in a flailing world. I could recognize in her the many layers that must exist in order to demonstrate so much skill under the weight of responsibility with alternating humor and seriousness. 

The sound of a breast biopsy is exactly like the sound an ear-piercing gun makes when penetrating cartilage. It’s like a hole puncher making its way through a stiff sponge. I began bracing myself for the sound as everyone in the room lined up images on two screens with the reality of what was going on inside my chest. The last time I was there, the radiologist suggested I look away when she began inserting numbing needles into my breast tissue. This time, I closed my eyes without her prompting. I began concentrating on my breath, dropping my awareness down into my belly, softening and gripping simultaneously. 

The assistant came around by my head and propped a pillow under my arm and then took my hand in hers as the procedure got under way. Chatter began about weddings and stinky, boy children—several of us had a couple of those—and honeymoons filled with reading and sleeping late. We laughed more than you might expect given the circumstances but there was always a pause and a sense of sacred space being held in each moment when the real work was undertaken. I could feel a force of goodwill building in the room, like oxygen was being pumped in.   

Each biopsy target required multiple shots for numbing that felt like exaggerated bee stings, and then one long needle inserted deeply into hard to access locations in my breast. I steadied myself for the pressure of the reach and turned in my mind to the energy of friends who promised to be with me from afar. I experienced a sense of them, as if they hovered over me. Their personalities fell away in my mind and I knew them in the backdrop of their being. 

With the numbing agent, you can’t really know for certain whether it has fully-deadened the area in question until the contraction of the biopsy tool is made. After each compression, the radiologist questioned me, Are you ok? You doing ok?

She said she could hear my heart beating. I assured her I was okay.

At one-point trouble-shooting was necessary. The resident sat at a computer across the room, meticulously considering the best course of action based on the imagery from a previous test. Peering through horn-rimmed glasses she contributed her opinion and then stepped back to observe. We celebrated between biopsies and the bed was turned around multiple times for better access. Each time I was spun around, it was as if a slate was being wiped clean or like I was being let up for air. Everyone seemed to take that moment to breathe again and I realized each of these women were every bit as much invested in the experience as I was. 

I watched as the clock ticked closer and closer to school pick-up time and when I was finally finished the relief was palpable. I was ready to jump out of the bed and leave but my mother-for-the-afternoon encouraged me to move slowly. She helped me to sit up and saw I had water in my bag, encouraging me to drink. She wanted to know my plan for the evening. I didn’t tell her my husband would be working late. I told her, instead, a friend had brought food. 

Afterward, I felt elated. It was more than the adrenaline surging through my body. Even as I had experienced extreme discomfort, I felt as if I had also been held for many hours in a gentle womb by a group of women who knew their job extended well-beyond the technical aspect for which they were each responsible.

Walking into the damp, Maine air, I made my way to my car and just as I was getting in, I suddenly made a connection. I thought about joy and instances that elicit this human-magic, this fleeting knowing that all is right in the world. I realized that whenever there is love, there can be joy. These two qualities are inextricably bound. It doesn’t matter if it is a bleak time. It doesn’t matter if you and your friend—a woman of grit and dogged humility—both have cancer. Whatever the circumstances, love is the gateway to the very highest realm of experiences we may have as a species.

In the aftermath, my chest turned all shades of grape-purple and yellowish-green. Waiting for the biopsy results was grueling. I’m not a worrier at heart, but I ruminated plenty in this instance. Positive results would likely have changed my plan for treatment significantly. Bursting into the room, my surgeon spilled out the good news. When we discussed next steps, I somehow managed to simultaneously admire her stylish, strappy heels (at a time like this!) and when she hugged me, in the uniquely, warm way she does, I knew I was in good hands. 

“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”—George Sand

Given my record of a too-full inbox and a seemingly ravenous spam folder, it feels like a small miracle that I received the message at all.

I had missed the CNN story that had gone viral and so the title of the message, Cards for Jacob, might have come across as unimportant or like more noise from a world so filled with communication.

I had recently approached the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine about a collaboration having to do with the Free-to-Play Project—a collection of my work meant to draw attention to the inherent value—and birthright—of children’s access to and freedom to play in childhood.

We had engaged in promising conversations about sharing my work—ultimately thwarted by my lack of status as a non-profit entity.

It didn’t matter that my mission and desire were to donate funding to their programming.

They were bound by rules and as disappointed as I was.

Despite my frustration with the red tape, I decided to donate half of the profits from a recent commission to the museum scholarship program anyway. The contribution would support seven families offering unlimited access to engaging play for one year.

It felt like the right thing to do in the moment and later I realized it was instrumental in connecting me to Jacob.

When we are open to it—and maybe even when we are not—it seems there is an invisible web of connection that extends beyond the known parameters of this life safeguarding our path to evolution and our purpose in being here.

I like to think Jacob somehow ensured I got the message because he knew this work was for me.

Imagine the power of a small and earnest request invoking a ripple across the globe—from New York to Australia to Dubai—causing hundreds of thousands of people to be stopped in their tracks and to respond.

This was the power of a small, 9-year-old boy whose nose wrinkled at its ridge when he smiled.

His name was Jacob Thompson and his request was simple and from the heart.

In the last weeks of his life—rendered short by terminal neuroblastoma that he had been fighting for four years—he shared from his bed at Maine Medical Center that he would like to receive Christmas cards from anyone who might like to send them his way.

His wish was to celebrate early a holiday he would likely never experience again.

As an aside, he noted how much he loved penguins.

The response took everyone by surprise and was so overwhelming the Portland Postmaster General became involved and began keeping track of the number of cards that were pouring in like an overflow of winnings from a slot machine.

A storage facility was rented to house the incredible influx of mail and Jacob’s family found a purpose—opening and reading cards with and eventually for Jacob—during an extremely painful time.

A few weeks after receiving the e-mail, I found myself driving to a part of a nearby town I had never been to.

It was a cold and sparkling morning just after the New Year and a heavy downfall of snow.

Surrounded by beautiful forests, I could have been driving across the scene of a quintessential Christmas card which seemed remarkable, given the circumstances.

I had been invited to view some of the hundreds-of-thousands of cards Jacob had received before he passed away and to consider whether I might be able to create a work of art with them given my experience working with repurposed materials.

Jacob’s family had been referred to me by an administrator at the children’s museum—the purpose of my experience there clear to me now.

As I drove to the meeting it felt as if I was following a thread connecting me to the next, relevant point in a geometric pin and thread art formation that constructs the pattern of a life.

A cousin of Jacob’s mother came outside into the brisk air and bright morning to meet me.

She wanted to ensure that I entered a certain door in the house so as not to have to navigate the snowier pathway.

She had put her dogs away so they wouldn’t bother me.

I could hear them barking and bouncing around on the wood floors—they sounded big.

Having just said goodbye to my own beloved cat, Autumn, I was eager to meet them and said so.

Sarah and I had an instant connection. There was an ease between us that went beyond our few moments of knowing one another.

It was clear we spoke the same language about life and loss from the start.

She brought out several long, plastic, post-office containers filled with piles of cards that had been sent to Jacob.

She told me about him, too— who he had been, his family and their incredible strength.

Together we poured through the cards—stopping occasionally together in awe of the idea that so many individuals had hearts to hear a young child’s request; to set aside the concerns of their own lives and find the time to reach out to him.

In these hurried and divisive times this occurrence seems miraculous.

At first, I was unsure how I would work with the materials—many of the cards were hand-made out of construction paper.

The current medium I work in—repurposed wall-calendars—provides glossier paper of a heavier weight.

Later I would have the opportunity to see and bring home many—thousands—of store-bought cards and begin to envision a work that would in some way honor Jacob’s life and the profound expression of love that was born out of his being.

Might we all have such an impact in such a short time.

On a Sunday morning, I brought several of the mail trays into my living room and began sorting them.

I was in search of swaths of color—interesting textures—that could be torn and set aside into the creation of a palette that would later become the material for a collage depicting Jacob hand-in-hand with a penguin and perhaps other children who had also endured neuroblastoma.

Jonah and Adrian were intrigued with the cards—with this life—like theirs but unfairly cut short.

“Why didn’t we send a card to Jacob?” Jonah asked me sadly as he sifted through the trays examining intently the words and images.

I explained that if we had known about Jacob, we would certainly have sent him a card.

Like an analyst, Adrian set about gathering the duplicate cards. He created rows and rows of singing Santas and penguins with twirling, ribboned hats, googly-eyed snowman and Rudolfs.

There were twenty-two identical cards that when opened produced a penguin wearing a pink and grey snow hat with green gloves singing Deck the Halls.

 I listened to those songs again and again as I absorbed the cards and their messages, tears occasionally springing to my eyes in response to the many examples of what it means to truly witness another’s suffering and to respond.

Periodically Jonah came to me to show me a card—having read the inscription and wanting to share it.

He was moved by the kindness expressed and I observed his sensitivity as he tried to process the life and loss of a boy his very same age.

It seemed like no coincidence that Jacob’s mother and I shared sons born in the same year.

I was halted again and again by the words written within the cards.

I felt privileged to have access to such profound outpourings of love.

People wrote about how much they cared about Jacob—the hero they had never met. They wished that they could be a fraction as strong as he.

Some encouraged him to fight—that he could beat this. Fight Jacob, fight.

Others assured him of the presence of God in his struggle. They knew he was not alone.

With all of these people showering him with their love—he was most certainly not alone.

They told about their own lives and challenges and about the way cancer had affected their families—their children, even.

The kids who wrote shared all manner of beautiful words and expressed how much they loved the same things that Jacob loved—Christmas and penguins, Minecraft and Legos.

The heartfelt outpourings in the cards came from individuals from all social, political and socio-economic backgrounds.

There in the cards were signs of every possible way of life—all humans responding to the same thing, the experience of another.

It makes me wonder how we can do more of this—more of seeing each other, more of recognizing the many ways in which we are the same. More of living in the way that Jacob would want us to.

 

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“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” —Aristotle

It is 2:30 am in a hotel room in Wisconsin. I am awakened by the sound of my son Jonah—a shiny, new four year old now—crying from the queen bed next to mine. He’s twisted in his sheets.  “My leeeeg huuuuurrts,” he sobs. This pain has been happening to him on and off now for over a year and seems to be related to his growth, both mental and physical. The wind howls outside along with him and I crawl into his bed trying to soothe him. I’ve learned that these moments need to be waited out and so I whisper my words of comfort and allow him to cry. I’m temped to remind him of the man downstairs who complained of our family making too much racket the night before. I restrain myself and wait. I think about the fact that my alarm will be going off in less than an hour so that we may get ready and catch our 7am flight out of Milwaukee. We are heading home from our Christmas holiday away. Jonah suddenly realizes he needs to go to the bathroom and jumps up from the bed. I follow him, grabbing his clothes already laid out for our travels. I change his first layer. He’s calm now as I walk him back to bed and he snuggles right up in his fresh skivvies, pants and turtleneck. With Jonah nearly dressed, I decide that we will try to transfer Adrian into the car in his sleep and dress him at the airport. I turn my alarm off knowing that my day has begun. After quietly showering and getting myself dressed I go back to Jonah and sit near him. He is in deep slumber again. The bathroom light illuminates the room enough for me to gaze at his cherubic face. He still has soft baby skin and even his chapped, rough lips look beautiful to me now. I stroke his hair and kiss his cheek gently. I bring my face so very close to his and tell him I love him.

I think about how at home I lay with Jonah every night as he drifts off to sleep in his new big-boy-bed. I’ve been advised not to but I do. Sometimes he will tell me what he is thinking about while we are laying there and his thoughts go on for a while. He turns back and forth from one side to the other and I am meant to turn in whatever direction he does although recently he’s taken to our facing each other. He tells me that he likes to look at me and we hold hands. Sometimes he drifts off very quickly, having been like a spinning top for twelve hours straight. Sometimes he will sit straight up and put his hands behind his head and then slowly fold back down, like a man in a hammock. He resists closing his eyes until just before he is deeply asleep. Sometimes I fall asleep too. Once he’s drifted off, I always lean over close to him and kiss him softly and tell him I love him. I tell him that I will always be there for him. I whisper the things that I want for him to know at his very core, at the place before his thoughts. I wish for my words to wipe away any indication I might have given him otherwise. I want them to wash away my impatient outcry at his rivalry with his little brother. I want them to wash away all of the many, many “shoulds” of the day. I want for my words to become his words to himself, the place where he lands as he grows into a man.

I finish dressing Jonah in his sleep. I delicately pick up each foot and put on his shoes. I sit him upright and put on his sweater—thankfully, a zip-up. He’s an excited flyer, so as I’m finishing I begin to tell him that it is time for us to get up for our flight, and he is happy about that. He manages the early hour very well. I walk over to where Adrian is still fast asleep. Before I wake him, I lean down slowly, bringing my cheek so very near to his, giving him a kiss and a testament of love.