I left off with the last few pieces of art I did before August 1999 when I went into treatment for cancer. One of the most obvious clue's that I was in serious trouble manifested itself in some of the drawings and letters I scribbled out around July/August. During my headaches I would have hallucinations of demons darting out of the corners of the room, floating eyeballs, dark spindly hands reaching for me in the dark. I remember attempting to hang out with a couple of pals at the local bar late July and no matter how dark or quite the atmosphere, I was berated with the sounds of whistles and whirring in my ears and a kaleidoscope of colorful light flashes. At that time I had no idea that nested in the center of my brain was a walnut-sized tumor that blocked the flow of cranial-spinal fluid from circulating it's normal flow around my brain and spine. Essentially my head was slowly filling with pressure. I described the headaches to my buddies as being at a rave full of helicopters.
The pressure on the back of my eyes damaged my optic muscles and gave me permanent double-vision which made it impossible to draw let alone do much of anything else. I drove and went to work with one eye closed with no depth perception. I visited the optometrist thinking my new contact lenses, overwork, and overwhelming stress where the cause of the problem. I was having severe marriage problems and was working 10-13 hour days as assistant manager at the pizza restaurant.
Against the advice of friends and family I still refused to see a real doctor.
It would be months before I would be able to even try and draw anything. Doctors at the University of Iowa hospital drilled a whole in my skull and inserted a tube to relieve the fluid on my brain. I had to lay flat on my back for days and days while the fluid slowly ran out of my head. During this time I was spoon-fed, sponge-bathed, and catheterized not able to move an inch or even sit up enough to see who came to visit me. Nurses used a carpenter's level to make sure I didn't tilt my head to the side. The few times I did blood would run down through the tube.
"Plan A" was a surgery to try and remove the tumor surgically by entering through the back of the skull and separating the lobes of the brain. Kind of like trying to take a pickle out of a hamburger by pulling apart the bun. The only problem with that the brain is the consistency of Jello so it is kind of like the game "Operation" but instead of setting off a buzzer you lose your function of speech, taste, or forget who you are for the rest of your life. I had a 3% chance of surviving the surgery and even that would most likely be a vegetative result. I was urged to fill out a will and make say my "goodbyes" to loved ones.
The day of "Plan A" arrived and the doctors asked if they could put off the surgery for another 24 hours. It happened that a young girl in more immediate need of the surgeons had come in to the hospital. Of course I wasn't in any hurry so it seemed I would have another day.
During that time test results from a spinal tap I had came back and showed that cancer cells from my spine were susceptible to chemotherapy and radiation. "Plan A" was scrapped and I began "Plan B". I went into seven rounds of high-dose chemotherapy and 44 radiation treatments.
One of the many rotten side-effects of "Plan B" was peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage to extremities) in hands and feet. Because of the high dose typical for young males I got it bad. My feet were the worst. The slightest touch to my feet caused pain. I described it to the doctors as, "Imagine if someone wedged potato chips in between your toes and filled up inside your shoes, then tied up your laces as tight as they could. That's just what it feels like when I hang my bare feet over the edge of the bed at night". Walking on carpet was like hot shards of glass.
My hands weren't half as bad but trying to grip an object with any amount of firmness caused spiking pricks of pain.
It was probably about a full year since I first got admitted to the hospital before I even bothered to really try and draw. Before I knew I had cancer I was visited by a floating "angel baby" girl during one of my headache induced hallucinations. Floating behind my head as I lay on the couch I could feel and somehow see her hovering there as if saying, "hello". I told my wife about this even though the doctors had told me I was going to be sterile soon after starting chemo. I was still convinced that I would have a baby girl. During my second round of chemo my wife called to let me know she was pregnant. With only a week to conceive a miracle had happened. Samantha was born in May 2000.
With my radiation over and my tumor completely gone I decided to go back to school. I started my first college classes at the community college.
I had been doing my best to write or draw by gripping a felt-tip pen in my fist or gently between my thumb and forefinger. I would also do this with a brush for watercolor. At first I gave up quickly but after a while I realized I could draw fairly well with small squiggled lines and crosshatching. Here is a selection of some of the work I did in my "therapy". Looking back I see a lot of more creepy stuff submerging during that time. The artwork I did for the next year or so is much different from my current smooth and refined lines and coloring.
Drawn from a photograph of my newborn daughter Samantha.
These are my elderly neighbors Bob and Beverly, sitting on their porch.
This is the one that brings me back the most. Sort of a strange way to illustrate my cancer experience.
Sitting out on my screened-in porch at home between radiation treatments, I was smoking my "nausea medication" and noticed the city had tagged all the trees down the street to be cut down. Feeling a little sad for the tree directly in front of my house I decided to immortalize it in a sketch. The tree led to the fallen leaves, the fallen leaves led to the boys, the boys led to the poking of a dead dog.
Some of the artwork I did during this time was inspired by the hallucinations I had due to the Hydrocephalus (build up of fluid in the skull). During my chemo I scared the living crap out of a two nurses one night after a nightmarish hallucination. I buzzed for help in the middle of the night and I must have sounded pretty damn convincing because after I told them what I thought they would see if they lifted up my blanket, neither of them wanted to be the one to lift it.
I'm sure my mom remembers having to "talk me down" after an incident trapped in the hospital bathroom where my socks turned into dead faces and started shrieking at me.
Even to this day I've kept the worst three nightmares to myself. The ones I told gave people the willies.
My first summer at college was great. I finished an overloaded first semester of general studies courses so I took a three summer art courses. At this point the neuropathy in my hands was pretty much gone.
Coming up next- part 3: college artwork