A Leaf of Knowledge, by Brendan Ogg
I don’t know
what the doctor means by “mostly”
within the radiation field
I don’t know
for how long I will need this cane
I don’t know
what the scan will look like one month,
four years from now.
All I know is the air that I breathe in this instant–
spring’s sweet whisper—
into my lungs,
my friend at my side,
his broad hand between my shoulder-blades,
the living God,
the love of my friends and family,
and the warm skin of her knee,
onto which I lay my cheek, to sleep.
Published by Finishing Line Press, 2010
Our son, Brendan, was a gifted writer. One of those little kids who not just loved to be read to but loved to write stories as well. (We still have the adventure story he wrote when he was 7 or 8, complete with illustrations and an end note, About the Author.) A love of words and writing stayed with Brendan and became a gift to him when, at 19 years old, he was diagnosed with cancer.
Brendan was home on winter break during his Sophomore year at University of Michigan. He was complaining of headaches, and at times they got really bad. We thought stress, migraines, maybe he needed glasses. But an MRI on Christmas Eve told us otherwise. Brendan had a brain tumor. It was big, aggressive and deep in the brain. The world just stopped.
Those 14 months Brendan lived he – and we – found ourselves getting up to speed on how this disease would affect the Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Mind – There are a number of resources available to educate patients and caregivers on the disease of cancer, and each particular kind of cancer. Overwhelming for sure, especially as we found ourselves in the grey area between pediatric and adult information, but we found this to be critically important in identifying and accessing the best treatment options available.
Body – We fight cancer with surgery, radiation and poisonous chemicals. We keep it at bay by staying fit, eating well and making healthy choices. In Brendan’s case after 5 neurosurgeries in 7 days, he spent 5 weeks at the National Rehabilitation Hospital learning to walk again and regain his ability to concentrate, remember and organize his thinking.
Spirit – Cancer makes us face mortality. Faith traditions can help us prepare for all potential outcomes of the cancer journey and for many the age at diagnosis puts mortality in perspective. We leaned into our faith and Brendan in particular found spiritual solace in art.
From the beginning Brendan was clear that he was going to leave curing the cancer to the doctors and that his basic task was to deal with the spirit. Although Brendan was an old soul and artist at heart (he woke up after one neurosurgery reciting T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) not everyone has to have an affinity for the arts to benefit from their healing effect.
A February 2010 article in the American Journal of Public Health found that while the arts have been used clinically for more than a century, only recently have studies documented outcomes. A review of the literature from 2003 – 2007 found that art therapies:
· Improved well-being by decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones;
· Demonstrated improvements in flow and spontaneity, expression of grief, positive identity, social networks;
· Improved medical outcomes, reductions in stress and anxiety, symptoms of compassion fatigue;
· Demonstrated increases in healing, well-being, and sense of purpose;
· Improved focus on positive life experiences, self-worth, and social identity.
We were fortunate to find the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. A one day poetry writing workshop there reminded Brendan of his gift and helped him put his new world into words. What we learned at the Smith Center has stuck with us over the years. The Smith Center is at the forefront of an important dialogue taking place in contemporary biomedicine about the distinction between curing and healing, and we want both. According to the Smith Center, this conversation is based on a few core concepts:
- Curing is successful medical treatment. It is what the physician hopes to bring to the patient.
- Healing is broader, and comes from within. It is the inner process through which a person becomes whole.
- Curing affects the illness, while healing affects the experience of the illness.
- A person engaged in healing work can make a significant transformation in their quality of life. And that itself can sometimes have a positive effect on outcome.
In many ways Brendan was different after his diagnosis and surgeries. In other ways, the best of him shone through. In the last weeks of his life we learned that a book of Brendan’s poems, Summer Becomes Absurd, would be published by Finishing Line Press. Not all the pieces are cancer-related – Brendan had been writing poetry before, during and after his diagnosis. But the body of work in the collection speaks to and reminds us of his spirit. Just as art helped Brendan deal with cancer, the fact that he shared himself with us through these poems helps heal us from the grief of his loss.
How to Find Art Therapy Resources:
Art for Cancer Foundation (Canadian)
The Creative Center (NYC)
Arts and Health Alliance
National Endowment for the Arts
Hospitals: Most hospitals now offer some sort of arts program so check with hospital staff and website.
Arts Agencies: Most state and local arts agencies have a listing of art and healing programs. Local art therapy organizations can be helpful as well.
Jackie has an MSW and has worked for the past 30 years in the field of social services bridging direct service, philanthropy, and community engagement. She is currently with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington where she serves as Director of Family Parish and Community Outreach. In 2010 Jackie and her husband Clay lost their 20-year-old son, Brendan, to brain cancer. Brendan was an emerging writer and took part in a poetry workshop at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. The work he created is included in Brendan’s book of poetry, Summer Becomes Absurd, and became the inspiration for a number of community art works including Encircled, exhibited at the Joan Hisaoka Art Gallery.