“What would you like to do today, Marshal?”
I never knew what would follow, how he would respond.
Most times he wanted to create a character, or animal, fresh on his mind that day.
Or maybe he saw something in another medium, and he wanted to try to do it differently, his own way.
Add to something, change it, make it his own.
This was how the art visits would often begin.
The question was asked, and we waited, clueless as to what Marshal would want to do.
On this particular afternoon, he had been waiting anxiously for the art therapist to come.
He had me ask for him at the nurses’ station, more than once, when she might drop by.
“Can she come early, Momma? Can you find out?”
Lunch came and went. He asked for more mac‘n’cheese, chocolate milk, PB and J. I ate his hospital leftovers and kept conversations alive.
Then, just before he could ask for her whereabouts again, she arrived. Her face appeared in our door window, looking in to make sure we were there and he was awake.
“Is this a good time?”
I caught myself before I said, “Are you kidding?” Instead I breathed a sigh of relief – his art buddy, a co-creator, my respite – had arrived.
“What would you like to work on today, Marshal?”
I usually stuck around at first to make sure the visit would ‘take.’ I made myself scarce in our tiny room, pretending to make notes in my journal or check messages on my phone while I looked for evidence that Marshal was going to truly engage in a session for more than just a few minutes. Moods in hospital rooms can change and change back before a parent can get to the door.
He asked what she had brought with her today. When he realized she had an actual supply cart in the hall, he said simply, “Bring it in!”
Letting Marshal go through possibilities on an Art Cart was like letting him look through the child life closet with a volunteer (oh yes, that happened, too!). This time he managed to settle for a simple sketch pad, pens, and pencils.
“Let’s just draw.”
I have heard these words so many times before. They were my clue that it was not only okay but imperative that I leave the room and give the two of them their studio.
Marshal shared long ago how when he was uptight, anxious, or confused about most anything, he simply needed to draw. “Just let me draw, Mom.”
So much of what happened for the next 30 to 40 minutes I would never know. I respected the artist’s right to confidentiality. I knew that whatever he and his artist companion talked about while they sketched or painted or formed was priceless, vital, and possibly life-saving. That may sound extreme, but for a young man who had overcome so many obstacles in early life even before a cancer diagnosis, a creative friend to listen was indeed a lifeline.
I sat downstairs in the atrium for a while, just breathing with a sudden appreciation for how very tired I was right then. My mind racing with thoughts was more active than my physical body had ever been on healthier, younger days and times. Emotional exhaustion sat beside me, and on me. The mash of thoughts in my head, as a parent of a child with cancer, felt capable of ignition, or burnout.
I had it pretty well timed as to how long I could be gone. I had spent close to an hour downstairs watching people, wondering who was sick, who was headed where, and what my evening or tomorrow might bring. From me, to them, to Marshal, to the piano playing in the background, to the sugar packet dropped in the middle of the atrium floor… thoughts bouncing everywhere. My respite time had run its course. Beautiful respite, knowing my child was loved, cared for, and in creative, patient hands.
And so, I returned to the room.
She was packing up her cart, about to leave as I reentered. My enthusiasm and appreciation for this time led me to ask excitedly to see what he had done. I needed that reminder of confidentiality. They quietly shared what had been completed, a few sketches of insects and an Egyptian god, possibly Anubis, with his very own prosthetic. The god had a prosthetic leg – same leg as my son’s – there it was.
Wow. Breathe. Don’t give away the monumental importance here by commenting on the drawing. He had drawn what we had not been able to talk much about. I had no doubt that the conversation accompanying the creation must have been important, too, but I didn’t ask much more. I let the art speak for itself. Let it speak volumes on what was unsaid yet imagined.
In that moment, as my son turned an Egyptian god into a superhero with a prosthetic, I felt it. A “maybe this is possible after all,” moment. A sketch of what couldn’t be said, a seed of what might be possible.
I perched on the edge of Marshal’s bed and got caught up. It’s likely we hugged, maybe even smiled at the sketch.
“Do you like him, Momma?”
“I sure do.”
That was enough for me.
“Yes, son… I really do.”
Room to create blossoming into counseling
The artist’s deliberate focus, a vessel for hopes and fears
The sketchpad, a canvas for hard thoughts,
for Marshal to try on scary possibilities
In meaningful moments
While I was downstairs
“Do you like him, Momma?”
Betsy Fisher is a mother, writer, and champion of Arts in Medicine. During her time as a caregiver to her son, Marshal, she wrote from her point of view about Marshal’s experiences in a healthcare setting where the arts and healthcare often intersected. This collection is based on her journal entries.
Special thanks to AIM writer in residence Andrew Hix for serving as blog editor for this collection.
Read more by Betsy: Artist’s Journals