In January 1999 my mother was diagnosed with gliosarcoma, a rare malignant brain tumor projected to take her life within 6 months. As I ventured into the final semester of my eighth grade year, she began intense chemotherapy and radiation following a craniotomy surgical operation to remove the tumor. Miraculously the tumor remained stable four months shy of five years. In August 2005, when I was 22 and just beginning my sophomore year of college, doctors reported the stomach-dropping news of tumor re-growth. She quickly underwent treatment called gamma-knife radiation.
In the months that followed, she began to face radiation necrosis, a delayed effect of her 1999 and recent 2005 treatments. The necrosis, or death of healthy brain tissue, caused her severe physical handicaps and hindrances in communication and mental awareness. By spring of 2005, she was unable to walk, feed herself, or dress herself. That August marked the reluctant yet inescapable first plunge into darkness that has characterized the past three years of my life and the lives of my family members. Paradoxically, that dark plunge has been full of light. In Grace Disguised, a mixed media series named after a book by Professor Jerry Sittser of Whitworth University, I seek to convey that which I once thought mutually exclusive: pain and joy. My intention is that the viewer would begin to understand my reason for hope.
The first aim in the series is simply to tell my story. I have photographed or illustrated an object or common occurrence from my parents' daily lives.
Though the content is somber, I chose a lively color pallet to allude to the grace I've found in the midst of it all. It seems, if we are honest, it is most often not in moments of prosperity that we wrestle the question of a creator's existence and seek to reconcile his goodness and sovereignty with suffering; but it is in moments of painful mystery—when we recognize that we do not, nor have we ever, had control of our lives. And for me, never have I felt so broken and powerless as I have with my mother's cancer; yet never have I felt so whole and secured by the promise that God gives gain greater than all losses—and not in spite of them, but because them.
God is using the situation to prove he is more than a crutch. Through pain, he is reorienting my priorities on eternal matters; and using it to give me perspective on the pettiness of wealth, the American dream, and the applause of important people. He is making me more patient, sensitive, and unusually grateful. He is teaching me to forgive tirelessly and live sincerely, because loving people means subordinating myself for the good of another. And certainly, I have been newly quickened to spend my life like it's running out. Yet most rewardingly, God's profound empathy and depth of personal suffering is making me love him more. These are things of grace.
The second aim in the series is to compare images of the present with images of the past, or attempt to altogether recreate my memories prior to the brain tumor. The viewer is able to observe what years and suffering have brought on. These specific pieces were created in light of the tormenting thought that happiness would be found if I were able to escape or reverse my circumstances to a place without it.
A year ago, at the height of these bleak reflections, I began reading A Grace Disguised. Sittser lost his wife, youngest child, and mother in a single car accident. In the book he expresses a similar longing to regain what he lost; but he explains that the problem with this, if it were miraculously fulfilled, is that he would eventually lose what he regained all over again. Death wins; life nonetheless runs out.
In the same way temporal relief or a miracle are insufficient solutions to impending death, these "recreation" images fall short of the actual memory, as it were. No matter how hard I tried, the lighting, the positioning, the facial expressions, and even the people are not the same. I cannot go back; and I cannot make it stop. These pieces are meant to manifest the powerlessness I have felt beneath death's conquering hand.
Sittser went on to explain, with great hope, that we need not a miracle of reversing the clock. We need altogether new life, something preeminent to death. We need a resurrection.
And as far as I know, Jesus of Nazareth is the only historical figure believed to have resurrected. His resurrection addresses imminent death; it promises that somehow with his rising over death, we too will rise. So inexhaustible joy and courage in pain can been had in recognizing that all situations, even death, are interim. As a matter of fact, they are thereby diminutive; for new and unending life is promised to be utterly absent of wheelchairs, medicine cabinets, brain cancer, and funerals. Equally absent will be war, famine, orphaned children, divorced parents, widowed women, and the plight of sin—both ours and others.' And it is perhaps only in places of suffering that we so much as begin to grasp these glorious thoughts. These are things of grace.
Lastly, it is a sure thing that every viewer, and every human for that matter, has or will experience varying degrees of loss. The fact that we live in a world broken by sin means that suffering is as much apart of life as breathing. But allow me to add: in creating art reflecting my suffering, I feel humbled at the thought of the hardships belonging to viewers that supersede my hardships. The goal of my work is not to naively demean another's loss by declaring it no big deal in light of eternity, or God's graces gained through it; because it is a very big deal. The good that has come from my loss does not justify nor nullify the badness of my mother's tumor; it does not make it something I wish on another. Pain and grace are surely related, but they are not interchangeable.
The goal of this work is to implore you, and to remind me, to make the most of loss. Our response to it and perspective on it dictates the kind of impact it will have on us, whether or not it will be pure darkness, or grace in disguise.