She is in a ‘cubicle’, a single occupancy room on the ward. She is very ill, the cancer is in the spine and the prognosis is not good. Her husband is with her, as he has been throughout. They both smile as I enter the room and the husband insists that I sit down in the chair that he vacates for me. They willingly, enthusiastically, agree to talk with me and tell me about their lives together, their children and grandchildren that they dote on and how the cancer has affected everything in their world. They want to know about the project and they want to do “anything that might help”. I turn on the tape and ask also if I might make a drawing of her as she lay in bed. And so they begin to talk. The love between them is tangible in the warmth, the familiarity and the time-worn, habitual fluidity of the way that they interact, interrupting each other to get the story right. She is weak, her voice very thin and feint so she eventually allows her man to tell it his way and, as the tape is running, he talks for over an hour as she murmurs agreement.
I tell them a little about myself. I talk about my work and show them pictures on my phone of the portraits I am painting for the Breast Cancer: a creative intervention project. She has me hold the small screen close to her face so that she can see and then she says, very quietly yet determinedly, “Can you paint my portrait? From a photograph? Here, now?” She looks at me – almost through me and I hear her husband draw breath. All three of us know why she is asking, why she wants the painting….It is agreed.
I make the painting quickly – I put all the feeling and sensation that I have of my meeting with an extraordinary ordinary woman into it and I send a email when it’s finished to let them know. He rings me to arrange delivery. I ask how she is and he says, “We buried her last Monday”. He thought I knew – that a relative had already told me – we stand in short silence across a sudden void in time and space, this man, bereaved, and me.
He welcomes me into his home. Over coffee he tells me that I have captured the ‘real’ her. He says, “That’s her. You’ve really got her. that’s the look she always gave me when she was telling me off!”
The painting will become part of the upcoming exhibition…he wants it to be that way.