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The Color of Cancer

by Virginia Grove

The day - the visit - is unevenly paced...It is orchestrated like the movements of Pictures at an Exhibition, a musical composition meant to memorialize - meant to leave a legacy - for a friend and artist who died in his thirties. I've just turned 31.

The time signature shifts meter - the walking pace between pieces - between exhibits...the stilted stop-and-go of looking at fine works of art in a museum - until the Catacombae movement - underground in darkness - with death.

Women in khakis and white-collared polos carry easels and white rectangles. At the corner of the receptionist's desk, they set one down, kick out the legs, and prop a rectangle on top - a painting.

I stop in the waiting room, The Old Castle - there's strength here: a real-life painting of men and women on their way to more days on Balding Mountain. There's ruin here: death pending, bones weakened, and joints unable to bear weight. I smell tumors - masses - dying lungs, breasts, colons, and blood.

Everything here is washed out. The seats and floors, the tables and counters, the walls and cabinets - artificial baby girl pink, end-of-a-bruise blue, bile yellow, pock mark brown, dying-hair gray...sick soft shades. Where is the deep purple, the lime green, the summer's night sailor's delight moon red? Where is Tuileries - where are the Parisian gardens?

I stop where chemo is given - Bydlo - with the other patients, I am one of the cattle - one of the ox. Poked and prodded, I pick a chair - a chair like every other chair - a yellow-tan in a washed tan room with linoleum that matches the winter gray morning. Though there isn't any sun, I sit by the window and watch the parking lot fill with once vibrant colored cars muted by the white residue of salted winter roads.

Typed on white paper on the pale wall is a note: If you need a blanket, ask a staff member.

"Honey? Can you go ask for a blanket for me and grab that art book from the counter by the magazines?"

The drugs start to flow - my cart - my IV tree attached. Snow falls - bits of snow, the way snow falls on stage three scenes after the scene where it is supposed to snow. Bits of snow like the 'curd' I dropped from my elementary school costume when I starred in 'Feelin' Your Oats' as cottage cheese and sang, on stage, about 'Gouda' dairy foods. This cancer has a stage too. Mine, stage IV. I am staged. I am performing. I am scared I can't win. I close my eyes and hear music...the Ballet of Chicks in their Shells...little ones trying to break out...

May 16th, 1990. Curtain opened to the cafeteria this time. A stage littered with creaky music stands and fold-away chairs, less than circular semicircles. The orchestra's pre-performance tinkering sounds as high-pitched squeaky woodwinds and pizzicato strings.

Clarinet in my shaky eleven-year-old hands, I begin to play. The Candy Man. Sammy Davis Jr. died today. 'Who can take a rainbow, wrap it in a sigh?' No one seems to think it odd. This wasn't planned. How could it have been? I take a deep breath and play through. We end our part of the performance with a squeaky rendition of 'The Syncopated Clock' featuring the clarinet section lined up at the front of the stage.

Risers lead to the stage. Four rows of light metal, carpeted with thin, tan remnants. Lined up by height and turned in towards center, we take a cue from Mr. A and begin to sing. The Rainbow Connection. Jim Henson died today. 'Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what's on the other side?' The gym. The other curtain. That's what's on the other side. A whole other world is behind that curtain. But, pay no attention to the man behind that curtain. 'Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? I've heard them calling my name.'

"Honey? Here's the book."

I open the book of 'Oncology On Canvas'-- its glossy pages. The color glows - acrylic, pastel, oil paintings, sketches, collage, and photographs - all of it cancer art. Here are bright reds and oranges, the lime greens, and deep purples. Here too are those same pale shades, the muted pinks and sick yellows, the tans and dirty creams. These same colors are different...the color has light - the art has light.

I stare at a black and white photograph - no other color. She's naked...no hair, her arms are outstretched. I stare at her mastectomy scars. Her skin is the ashy pale - ashes to ashes, dust to dust - of me - a cancer patient. She is smiling. She is stripped and exposed, in black and white. What I see is light, and in the light, color.

I expect to feel tears but I don't. I close the book, leaving my thumb on the page and lay my head back on the pillow. Above me, I notice a glass panel I've never seen before. It is painted to look as though I'm looking through a sky light at a brilliant blue sky rimmed with the branches of cherry blossoms...

I didn't expect anyone would come but believed everyone would. I had spent years thinking about this moment - the shape of the glasses for the wine, the music to integrate with the engagement of all of the other senses. I thought it'd be best if no one would expect what they'd see, but they would believe it was what they were coming to see. I wanted people to cry but then not be able to. I wanted them to forget to keep their lips together, but not let any sound slip from them.

The room is a rectangle, plain white walls that tapper from white to gray to black by the time they meet with the floor. The floor is black, lined with white like a parking lot but with a heavy coating of thick clear plastic to make it look icy. Recessed lights on the floor and ceiling cast shadows. Thin wire cables run the perimeter of the room, just above eye level, from which clips hold my pieces - transparent canvases of black and white drawings and paintings in color. As the light travels through the art, it casts its larger shadow on the wall somewhere between the whiteness of the top and the gray near the middle.

In a room where shades of black and white and gray leave shadows of black and gray, the color stands out exponentially - especially the green. The eyes of green in the color paintings stare as you walk past them. The programs are in this same shade of green, with black type noting: V Lee G: Shadows of Lighting Awake. I take a sip of merlot, open the door...

"All done. Two weeks then? Here is your paper. Have a great afternoon."


"All done?"


"Two weeks then? 10:50 work?"

"Yes. Thanks."

"Have a great weekend."

"Thanks. You too."

The waiting room I walk into is filled with easels around its rectangular perimeter. On each easel is a painting or a drawing or a photograph. This is the art from the book - these are the pictures of light.

A woman walks in wearing a scarf on her head, her green eyes bright. Not too many months ago, I would have seen her and quickly tried to turn my eyes away. I would have looked at her and believed she was dying. Dying like my Mom-Mom did in an odd-numbered year. How sad were the sick people, I'd have thought. I was embarrassed at ever having looked at someone the way I had.

My hazel eyes looked at and into her. Her scarf was full of color, her eyes so green, and her skin was all of the shades and colors of the cancer patient's palette...the new palette I was painted in. She had a light...a bright, bright light. Light, I was learning, looked brightest, when looking at it from within the dark.

Virginia L. Grove is an MA and MFA graduate of the Wilkes University Creative Writing program, where she studied creative nonfiction and poetry. On the day she began working towards her MA, Virginia received word of concerning results from a recent chest x-ray. In the month that followed, Virginia was officially diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma. This February, she will celebrate three years cancer free. She is currently working on revisions to a creative nonfiction piece, BREAK, from which this selection is taken.