Handle with Care is a textile piece about my experience of caring for my terminally ill mother in 1979, the summer I turned 16. I had never thought of myself as a ‘carer’ until earlier this year when I was involved as an Arts & Health Practitioner in a community arts project in Devon called The Craft of Caring. The main project was engaging with carers in a series of workshops to make a piece of community artwork.
There was a call for art submissions from people about their experience of being a carer. After hemming and hawing for a few weeks, I decided to make this piece. Although I have done a lot of work on this loss over the years, I have carried vivid visual memories around with me for the past 40 years. This piece of artwork gave me the opportunity to process my experience in a different way than I have done so in therapy.
“This self-portrait uses photographic and stitched images,
layers of memory and text to capture the artist’s experience
of being an adolescent carer; an experience of a world unravelling
contrasted with the strength of will to hold herself together.”
My mom developed breast cancer in 1975. She sought ‘alternative’ non-medical treatment, including visiting healers over the next four years. In 1979, when my mom was dying, my family didn’t deal with it well and I was pretty much left to get on with things and look after her the best that I could. My dad lived nearby and came around sometimes; my older sister lived further away and had a fulltime job and a husband, she came when she could.
I began with my junior year high school picture that was taken a couple of weeks after my mom had gone back to the hospital for the final time.
I printed it onto Lutradur, a translucent fabric that can be printed and stitched on. The fabric looks delicate, but is very strong. I chose white fabric to reflect the clinical aspect of terminal illness and the absence of emotion that I used at the time as a coping mechanism to get through such an overwhelming and difficult experience.
Altogether, I chose eight visual memories that I arranged around the photo of myself.
It began with a phonecall in the springtime of 1979. My mom had gone to the Optimum Health Institute near San Diego for some sort of juice cleanse. When she was there, the cancer had mestastasized and spread to her brain. She was very disoriented and wanted me to come and get her, which I couldn’t do because I couldn’t drive.
My older sister went to get her and took her straight to UCLA Medical Center. She was admitted, had a radical mastectomy and began chemotherapy and radiation. She was in and out of the hospital for most of that summer.
The day she left home for good was in October 1979. She was simply in too much pain to be at home any longer and called an ambulance service to come and take her to the hospital. The day she left, I stayed home from school. No one at school, neither friends, teachers nor the principal, knew what was going on. I somehow managed to hold it all together.
Gillian Taylor PR has made a short video of me talking about the artwork.
Making Handle with Care was a profound opportunity for me to reconnect with a younger part of my self in a very healing and transformative way. My Significant Seams colleagues and I have recently begun to do work with Balloons, a charity in Exeter that supports bereaved children and young people. While attending a training session, I learned that bereaved students are among the most vulnerable people at university. This makes sense, as I had a rough first year in college and took six years altogether to get my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology.
When I look back on my adolescence and the young woman I was becoming, amidst the shock and disruption of losing a parent, I have so much gratitude for my strength and resilience. As always, when I make a piece of artwork to speak about, heal and ultimately transform old woulds, I am grateful that I have the gift of creativity in my fingertips.