When faced with a life-threatening situation, it is the rare person who can look beyond their immediate survival and give thought to the notion that this experience could eventually be transformative. As should be, the focus is on the here and now, enabling all energies to be used to overcome whatever the challenge one is experiencing.
Clearly that is how my life was unfolding in February and March of this year as I went through almost two months of radiation and chemotherapy treatment for head and neck cancer. The debilitating effects of the treatment left no space in my mind to reflect on the “meaning” of what I was going through. In other words, it is quite difficult to be philosophical while in a state of nausea.
To ensure that the radiation is focused in the exact area of the head and neck where the cancer cells might be active, the technicians in the department of radiology mold a plastic “mask” that fully covers the head and top of the shoulders. The mask is used every day one has treatment and mine amounted to a total of 35 days.
Depending on your perspective, the mask can look quite ominous as it also has bolts that screw into the table upon which one is lying. The intention is to restrict head movement as there are so many areas where one wrong move could mean a permanent and significant disability. For example, damage to vocal chords would be devastating to me.
The radiation itself is not painful, however side effects that I still live with nine months later are loss of taste, drop in weight (40lbs,) lack of saliva and hearing loss in my left ear. The good news is that my overall sense of well-being has increased significantly, I am productive and fully engaged with clients and all my scans show no sign of cancer.
As you might imagine, the “mask” does not hold pleasant memories for me. Although I am very appreciative of the breakthroughs that have been made in curing cancer, it never occurred to me that anything transformative would ever come from being in the embrace of that mask for so long.
Someone else, however, saw the mask in a totally different way and had a vision for its use that I could never have imagined.
The fourth of my five children, Jessie, is an artist who I am pleased to say is getting increasing recognition for her unique work. On one of the trips to the hospital for treatment, Jessie was my driver. She took advantage of the opportunity to observe what I was experiencing, but on the way home enquired as to what happens to the mask once the treatment is over.
Now, if you have artistic children, or know artists, or you yourself are an artist, then it should be completely clear that artists’ brains explore worlds where no-one has gone before. This is especially true of Jessie, who once she discovered that the hospital threw the masks away, immediately laid claim to it.
There is a truism, at least for me, which suggests that parents should never ask their older children questions if there is a risk you may not like the answer. So my only counsel to Jessie was the following: “I have no idea what you are going to do with the mask but know one thing – I never want to see it again.”
As the months went by following my treatment, the quest to regain my health and strength absorbed all of my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual resources. What Jessie might be doing with the mask quite frankly never entered my mind until one night several weeks ago when I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
My partner, Cheryl, and I were participating in the St. Paul Art Crawl where Jessie was one of the featured artists. Of course, as any proud father would want to do, Jessie’s space was our first stop. Upon entering the room I was drawn immediately to a piece hanging on the far wall.
My eyes could not make out exactly what it was, but my visceral response was so great that I knew it was the mask.
I crossed the room very slowly as my emotions were running rampant. As the work of art came into full view, I was looking not at a symbol of my past but at a vision for my future.
On the wall – its eyes peering straight at me – was a magnificent eagle!
Ah, how limiting our thoughts can be. Oh, what restrictions we place on the possibilities of what could be. Thank you, thank you, thank you for those whose imaginations transform the ominous into the magnificent.
I have no desire to interpret what this story might mean for you. But know this: Even those whose purpose is to encourage others face times when they themselves need to be encouraged. This year has been of those times for me. On one level the transformation of the mask into an Eagle needs no further comment. However, Jessie’s words on a plaque next to her work of art will inspire me forever.
“I believe that we all have totems that guide us through our lives. For my father, it is the eagle. It is a symbol of his spirit, vision and strength. I’ve made this work from my father’s radiation mask. This mask represents his enormous spirit, his vision of a healthy and cancer free life, and his unfaltering strength.”
From the TransForm Team we wish you a wonderful Holiday Season and may 2012 be Purposeful and Inspiring.