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“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”—Socrates

There may be no more-lovely scene than autumn’s golden leaves, lit-up in streams of morning sun. Amber and honey, scarlet and peach, ripen the landscape in a contradictory expression of what it means to brighten into the highest form, even in the midst of imminent surrender.  

Some trees are so radiant in this season they appear like giant lollipops or glowing fountains upon hills and in backyards. They seem to burst into view—gentle fireworks landing in an offering of hope and majesty. It is hard to imagine the way we just move past these displays, as if this revolution of painted glory is somehow made to be normal. It is hard to imagine that we do not stop and gasp in awe. 

When the mail truck drives down the driveway just before I’ve pulled in, I wait at the end in the little cove by the mailbox. As it comes back toward me, the wheels of the truck kick-up fallen leaves, like a boat’s wake, caught in the afternoon sun and returned to the grey pavement like a colorful carpet.

A mother pushes a carriage around a corner, framed by a forest of trees, lush and in various states of metamorphosis. Witnessing her, I am transported in time, observing myself pushing Jonah, in his little blue car, in the very same spot. If only there had been an odometer so I could know the number of miles we traveled, our azure silhouette juxtaposed with the golden backdrop. I could cry at the memory but find myself smiling instead. I move away from the steep sorrow of time’s fast pace toward the level ground of honor for what has been.  

Walking on a country road on a brisk day I notice a tree whose base is surrounded by a blanket of fluffy, dandelion-yellow leaves. They seem to have fallen in a perfect circle, as if they dropped off all at once. I imagine reaching my arms down into them, gathering them up and tossing them into the air, like confetti. Up ahead I see two towering trees that are completely bare, one on either side of the deserted road. I notice how different their forms are from one another. The one on the left side is rounded with upsweeping branches. The other, on the right, is stiffer with arms jutting out at sharp angles and upward. I consider whether I can see who they are more fully without the intensity of color getting in the way.

There have been fall days when the clouds have hung so low it seems as if they are forming a second story, a ceiling, over the tops of the tallest pine trees. These willowy beasts have been wide, too, and mountainous. I have found myself hypnotized by their pace and capacity to bring attention to the vast, cornflower blue sky. 

I am given a little slip of pastel-yellow paper that I scan in front of a computer to announce my arrival. There are a few dressing rooms to choose from with photographs of flowers on the doors. I often enter the room with the lavender pansies and where the rubber wrist band that holds a key to the locker is purple. Whether I am a creature of habit or partial to the design palette, I’m not sure which. I change into two, medical gowns leaving on my floral leggings. One is white with little snowflakes sprinkled all over and the other is pale blue and is worn like a robe. There is a bright light in the tiny, changing room, good for checking in the full-length mirror for the return of my eyelashes and noticing the other ways in which my body is coming back into bloom.  

I sit in the waiting room with a book on my lap. I have a pencil tucked in between the pages and from time to time I put little brackets around passages that make my heart beat a touch faster. I highlight the lines in which the author shares revelations that any one of us might discover if we quiet ourselves long enough to listen. It reminds me of the idea that meditation, at its core, is an opportunity to drop-in to the place within each of us connected to infinite wisdom. When we return, we carry around a remnant of that place informing all of the many ways that we exist in the world. Sometimes we can recognize these fragments of the divine in others.

Later, I will meet with a doctor who I have never met before. I imagine us being introduced in a social context and consider the surreal nature of his request that I take down my gown, so he can examine my breast, within one minute of meeting me. Noticing my book, he asks about it. I wonder if he really wants to know and whether I should try to explain. He listens awkwardly as I tell him about the memoir, a story of a Stanford Medical School doctor and his attempt to integrate Native American healing techniques with western medicine. He flashes a smile at me as if we are speed dating and responds with disinterest. 

The treatment room feels like a planetarium with a wide, circular ceiling that hosts an array of equipment and a long table centered in the middle. I hang my robe on a hook and place my book on a chair, faced down. I am offered a warm blanket and accept it. I have learned just how to place my body on the metal table so that the various wedges land beneath my upper legs and my knees. My arms reach up over my head and grab onto two handles that feel like the tops of ski polls. The technician who ran the half-marathon a few weekends before places a rubber band around my feet to keep them in position and wraps my arms in a warm blanket. 

I never thought my first tattoos would be imprinted by medical staff at a hospital. I have imagined recording the initials of the ones I love on my wrists or ankles, an elegant tree or blossom along the curve of my arm. There are Latin phrases that have resonated so deeply in me, I have considered imprinting them onto my body for emphasis; ways of living I would like to be reminded of whenever I look down upon my skin. Instead I have been marked with three black dots. Two on either side of my ribcage and one around my sternum. Like a period in a sentence, let them represent the end of something, and the beginning.   

The lights go out momentarily and I gaze up at a ceiling that has been lit from behind with six panels creating an illuminated, spring scene. There are hints of trees along the edges with bright, green leaves and a cheery sky with languid clouds. I imagine the display coming to life—the clouds moving across the scene—and wonder what it would be like if the landscape could reflect the weather patterns of the patients who have gazed up at it.  

One of the machines makes a soft humming sound and begins moving toward me from the side. It hovers over me and then begins moving up the length of my body beginning from around my waist. As it moves upward, I can see my reflection in the glass surface—my bare chest and then my face are mirrored back to me with green lines delineating my skin like something out of Star Trek. Catching site of myself, I memorize this unusual perspective and chat with the technician with the coral-red scrubs while she lines up my tattoos with the map of my treatment. Whenever she wears this color, I think about how I would like to buy something in a similar hue—an invitation to the energy it creates. One of vitality and strength. She comments on the parts of me she can see—my pretty bracelets and jeans with holes in them. I notice her enviably long eyelashes and feel my body soften with the comfort of warmth in the room. On the last day we say our farewells and with a twist on regular etiquette we all express how much we hope to never see one another again.    

This is the sliver of time in Maine when the sky at sunrise across the horizon is so vibrantly pink it is a reminder that all of the most luminous colors really can be found in the natural world. If you catch this light on a damp morning through a thick forest, the contrast with saturated bark might take your breath away. It can stop you in your tracks and tumble you in the direction of creation all at once. It is neither a time of clear inhale, nor exhale. Rather, it is a string of moments, woven together and priming us, for the expansion we will be enacting, even as our roots penetrate into the depths of our beings, where all of the magic happens.

“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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