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The Courage of Being Present

The first thing I see when I walk into a room on the oncology floor is not normally a bassinet sitting at the foot of a patient’s bed, but that’s how this story begins. A stuffed animal is perched in the patient’s lap, where she sits up in bed looking like a beautiful 40-something biker chick whose ride has mistakenly landed her here.

A tattoo made of words, rendered in simple calligraphy, graces her right foot. Her coal black hair is stylishly short and shiny as patent leather. Her face is round and flawless, as ready to beam with a smile as it is to break into tears.

Though I’m having trouble understanding the scene in front of me, I tell her that I’m here to turn something about her experience into a piece of art that will bring her comfort. All I need is one word that means a lot to her.

In one long breath she tells me she had just given birth to her son two weeks ago and while trying to figure out whether she was having a reaction to an antibiotic they discovered her leukemia was back even though supposedly once you have it as she did 15 years ago it doesn’t come back and now of all times when she has found more happiness than ever did it have to show its ugly face and get between her and this unbelievable child who is so special there are literally no words to describe him.

I gasp at this heartbreaking cruelty. She knows I am looking for a word from her, but she doesn’t know if she can find just one. I ask her to tell me what going through leukemia before taught her. She says she learned then that the only thing that matters is NOW. Right NOW.

In all the words I have illustrated for patients, I’m not sure I’ve ever done one that meant more than this. Just making the shapes of the letters put me profoundly in the moment. With her. We occupied it, together. And soon the room filled with it to the brim.

What is a room filled to the brim with NOW like? It oozes love and warmth. It crackles with the electricity of possibility. It shines with the joy of new life. It radiates wisdom borne of surviving challenges. It breaks open with the vulnerability of being human. It just simply IS.

We look at each other after she sees her word, and neither of us can talk. We’re both smiling with our mouths and crying with our eyes. In the presence of no guarantees, there is this moment, and it is all we have. And it is everything.

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