I recently attended the Kaiser Permanente Executive Leadership Conference in Washington, DC. KP leaders gathered from all over the US for this event. At the opening of the meeting, KP showed a compilation of several videos to present my art advocacy mission supporting patient access to the medical record and the painting 73 Cents. It was a very powerful video, and after watching it, several members of the audience came up to talk to me about … my hair color.
I am one those people blessed to have been every hair color. I was born with a thick head of black hair. In a month or so, it fell out and came in blond. As I grew, my hair turned red and was that color for many years. By the age of 8, my hair was light brown. In my teens, my hair turned to a dark brown. With having such an amazing array of colors in my youth, I found I didn’t feel constrained to any one color, and in my twenties, I decided to lighten my hair back to the red of my childhood. When Fred grew ill, I was still the light red I had been for many years. After Fred died and I began my painting advocacy, I continued to keep my hair a light red. While working on 73 Cents, I spent days painting in the bright sun, which bleached my hair even lighter.
As the months of painting and grief progressed, I looked at my roots coming in completely gray. I now could truly say I had had every color of hair. But I am only 38 and do not plan to go gently in that gray night. So I went to a local salon for a color consultation. The nice stylists there told me I should go darker as it would look nicer with my complexion.
I submitted to their excellent advice. While I sat in the chair, I spoke to the stylist about hair and cancer. I told her about my husband’s 10-week hospitalization. After about six weeks, his hair had grown so long. We inquired about barber services. The hospital informed us there was a nice lady who performed haircuts for patients. She was very nice, but she did not have a lot of skill with cutting the hair of a bedridden patient. The entire experience turned into a farce that Fred, his folks, and I shared with friends for weeks to come.
After I shared my story with my hairdresser, she told me a tale of her own. She told me how she was the last one to shampoo and style her mom’s hair while her mother was in home hospice. It was a beautiful tale. It made me want to cry. I could almost see her hands gently washing her mother's hair. I could hear the happiness and sorrow she felt in her attempt to help her mother. Yes, she made her mother feel pretty; but this offered more than that. She touched her mother. She caressed her at a point in her life when she so need to be touched. She anointed her hair with oil…
So I am not bothered that the most asked question after viewing a video of 73 Cents was about my hair. I know often when we talk of hair, we might also be talking about beauty and death. Perhaps I have gone darker … because I have gone darker. Like Dark Willow or Dark Phoenix, I am not the same as when I started.
I brought two portfolios with me to the KP conference. One is light and cheery; it is my "before" album. For so many people ask if I was always an artist; I have always been an artist. I used to paint book characters and children's bedroom murals. The before portfolio shows the work I have done with children for the past eight years. The "after" portfolio is for the Medical Advocacy Mural Project. It is filled with images that often disturb but still retain hope. I like to create images that make you think, even if they tend to cause upset. This portfolio is darker, but there are still windows of light. This portfolio contains medical murals, jackets with patient images, and canvases I paint on-site at conferences.
In this part of that painting, the bride is combined with the cancer patient. The best point in her life is combined with the worst. The sorrow is palpable. The cancer bride's hair is falling out, and strands are held in her hand. She is reaching for the apple of knowledge. In that apple is placed an eye. Knowledge without vision helps no one.
Weeks after I painted this, I was sent the wedding photos of Katie Kirkpatrick. If you have never seen these photos, I recommend you take a moment to view them. Katie was suffering from end stage cancer when she married her high school sweetheart. Under her lovely gown her limbs were swelling as her organs began to shut down. Just glancing at the photos made me cry, as I saw a body so similar to Fred’s before his death. She was dying and she was beautiful and … her hair was so pretty. She died five days after her wedding.
Thank you, Diem, for sharing your vision with us all. I am sure there are many people who will thank you for creating MedGift to help them when things seem their worst. Thank you, Katie, for sharing photos of your happiest day while so sick; we shall never forget you.