Cancer, A Torn Serigraph and An Unexpected Series of Letters
A break from the office routine and a walk down New York City’s Second Avenue with a friend would lead to something unexpected, a short correspondence with a famous artist. Walking on that bright, sunny day down the slight incline of the avenue, my friend and I stopped at an art gallery. The prints in the window were interesting, and we’d done this before.
Once, on another lunchtime walk on Fifth Avenue, we stopped at the Brentano’s bookstore and slowly walked by their artwork inside. I bought a Ronald Searle print. Whimsical and colorful, it fit my budget and my mood on that day.
No, I wasn’t a collector, but I did enjoy prints and original artwork for editorial cartoons. I had a few of them from Oliphant, one by Marlette (a Nixon one) and others. None by David Levine or Ranan Lurie, whose work I loved.
Today’s Corita Kent print hit especially hard because my mother had recently died after a battle with metastatic cancer. The line, “I did not know I had so much goodness,” was what stopped me, not the bold colors or the splashy script.
Our family had suffered along with my mother through the many months of finding treatment and pain relief through new hospice programs. Keeping her at home as we watched, on shifts, as she lay in her bed, was the only acceptable solution. No, we would not send her to a hospice nursing home, but care for her as she would have cared for us.
The purchase made, my friend and I returned to the office. I took the print home and opened it. Unframed, it lay between layers of protective covering, but once removed, they revealed a tear at the bottom of the print. The discovery brought up a feeling of betrayal that resonated with the behaviors we’d experienced at the hands of medical professionals. I had to do something.
The Letters Begin
I don’t know how I communicated with the art dealer, but I expressed my anger. The dealer couldn’t supply another print; it was a limited edition. Her solution was for me to contact the artist directly.
Yes, a rather extraordinary suggestion, but I took it. Corita Kent’s full address was given to me, and I wrote to her, not about the tear but the bond we had — she had cancer, and the prognosis was poor. How I discovered she had cancer, I still don’t know. Perhaps she told me when I wrote to her. I did admire the print and told her so.
Gracious and understanding, the letters, written in red ink in beautiful script, came over the months. We each gave some of ourselves. Me about my mother and her having been in clinical trials. Corita, about her belief that new theories about the immune system were her hope. She would shortly be going to California to enter treatment.
The treatments were not truly medical but mind-body, where the patient concentrated on her immune system. Through a force of will, the body’s natural defenses would be marshaled to the cancerous cells and destroy them. At least, that’s what the theorists believed. It was her only hope for her breast cancer, which had spread.
PNI, psychoneuroimmunology, was in its beginning stages and promises a new approach to all diseases, not solely cancer. The belief was that a dysregulation of the immune system could be brought back into a state of homeostasis with the proper training. The research was wide-ranging and includes not only cancer but Alzheimer’s, HIV, and Epstein-Barr. Natural killer cells would do the work where medications had failed.
The letters came, perhaps one a month, for several months, and then they stopped. I had heard nothing and wasn’t scanning the obits because I believed she was doing well. Her letters didn’t indicate anything otherwise.
I tried writing to someone at her former address in the Boston area, and they gave me the sad news. Corita had died.
The letters, perhaps eight to ten at most, are tucked away in a small wooden box I inherited. Whenever I see red ink now, it reminds me of her letters. I am grateful for the comfort she provided, even as she faced her mortality.
In the end, the nun in her came out as the artwork had, too. A caring, talented woman of courage. I remember her fondly even though we never met face-to-face, nor spoke on the phone. The letters are enough.