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A Certain Kind of Living

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For the longest time I thought it was about dying, about the things we leave behind. For the longest time I was wrong about what an artist was doing there in the Muncie Cancer Center.

Photos and text    
by Kyle August Nickel '03

In a nearly empty Mexican restaurant in Las Animas, Colorado, the conversation turned to the  purpose of art and its role in society. Doug Calisch began describing his plan for a piece he'd been commissioned to do at the Muncie, Indiana Cancer Center as evidence of the good that art could do, the power it has to influence lives.

He would set out boxes in the lobby of the Center and collect objects donated by the patients, their families, and the staff of the Center. He would place the objects in plaster tiles and make a wall of things left behind. He'd set up tables in the lobby so that patients would have an opportunity to participate in the making. It would be a refuge of creation, a healing without medicine.

We finished our mediocre chili rellenos, drove west to New Mexico, and took a lot of pictures. A few months later, I took Doug up on his offer to see how things were going at the Center and walked in beneath the high, vaulted ceilings of the Center's waiting room to see what his project was all about.

The wedding cake topper set me down the wrong path from the start. The first time I visited Doug, there it was in a tile he had recently completed, and I thought of my wife and thought of one of us leaving the other for Heaven. And the next day, visiting my parents and seeing the gray in their hair, that notion changed to not if, but when.

For the longest time I thought Doug's work was about dying, about the things we leave behind. The tools that technology and white- collar children have rendered  inefficient were in the same box as buttons that had no shirts and knick-knacks that said something about a life that was no longer lived. Doug chose them carefully, rusting sacraments to place in the plaster with baby spoons and bullet casings until there were dozens of 12-inch by 12-inch monuments to the dead or dying. Or so I thought. For the longest time, I was wrong about what he was doing there in the Muncie Cancer Center.

When the Wabash chemistry department was moving out of the top floor of Goodrich Hall in 2002, I had no idea that years later I would see one of the many bottles they donated to Professor Calisch—bottles that I helped carry down all those stairs and across campus to his studio in the Fine Arts Center—show up at the Muncie Cancer Center. As I performed that seemingly menial task of my summer internship with the art department, I would never have imagined this cancer survivor Jerrilyn, her hair all grown back, cutting off a piece of her wig and setting it in one of the old chemistry bottles. It was my third trip to the Center and I had seen all kinds of angels and knickknacks, old tools and toys, but Jerrilyn had a Styrofoam Slurpee cup in her bag of donations. I thought it was trash at first, but she started holding it up to the frame, arranging it with the other things. Her Slurpee cup was for the project and when I realized this, I liked her immediately.

She's the youngest, by my estimation, of a group of breast cancer survivors that call themselves the Bosom Buddies. They go to lunch once a month in downtown Muncie, they take a yoga class taught by another survivor, and most striking, they laugh a lot.

The older woman, a butterfly who had been flittering around the group offering encouragement and smiles, held up the silver Christmas ornament, a hinged ball that she opened up and held in front of her chest.

"I thought about bringing one of my old prosthetics, but brought this instead."

The women around her immediately burst into laughter. Laughter! These things are not about dying after all.

From that perspective, I looked back at the people I had met while visiting Doug there, and, sure enough, it had been about living all the while.

The woman who rolled the piece of coral over and over in her hand had a hard time parting with it. It was a souvenir of her first dive in the Caribbean. She pet it like a cat, rubbed it like a soft spot, and placed it on the table with a sigh. "You'll just have to go get another one," Doug said. The fact that she could do just that seemed enormous, and she smiled.

When Mrs. Sharkey was diagnosed, Mr. Sharkey took over all of the domestic duties of the house. She still chuckles when she tells how he abandoned the cabinets and placed all the food on the counters and island in the kitchen. When he was cooking, he could look right at what it was he needed and when it was time to make the grocery list, there was no rummaging in through the shelves; he simply looked about and added to his list all he didn't see.

Mrs. Sharkey cannot stand for long periods of time, so when she sat down while she was working with Doug at the Center, Mr. Sharkey took up her tile, placing the elephants and blue plastic shark this way and that, looking for the right arrangement. She smiled while she watched him twist up his mouth in thought, a little twinkle in her eye as he rubbed his chin at a new configuration in the tile.

A woman from Ohio had donated a blanket she'd crocheted. I do not know a thing about crocheting, but considering that Doug's wife, Laura Conners, is a textile artist, I took Doug's word for it when he said it was an amazing piece. A week later, I met the woman who made it. Her husband is there for treatment, and she keeps her crochet needles in his old pill bottles. His hobby is taking a metal detector to parks and fields, just to see what he can find. He brought Doug jars full of things from his quests. The way this couple held hands, looked at one  another, helped with one another's stories: I hope it is enough to say that I could just tell they loved each other deeply.

There are so many stories from these things that Doug collected. On his last day of treatment, a man wanted his last dollar paid to the Center to go to the project, so it is rolled up with the determination of  a new life and tucked in a glass bottle. If you held the bowling trophies up to your ear, you could hear the laughter and shatter of Saturday night pins in the lanes. There are some long-unused smoking pipes, still smelling of poetry, that traveled, both physically and emotionally, a long way to get there. So many stories, and they all have to do with a certain kind of living. Really living.

When Jerrilyn finished her tile, she sat down beside me and I asked—I just had to know—about the Slurpee cup.

"When I was going through treatment, I couldn't keep much down. But I could drink Slurpees. After chemo, I'd drive myself, sick as could be, to get one, and it always tasted so good. Nothing ever tasted so good."

That, it seems to me, is what Doug's work is about. Wabash men are called to "live humanely," and there in the corner of the lobby, with his sleeves rolled up, he was doing just that. He did not just make art; he let others trade their possessions for a chance to participate in the process. Maybe they learned that creation and healing are never far apart, and I learned a little more about how precious living is, how nothing can taste as good as a Slurpee.