Grab a cup of tea, this is going to be a long one…

After giving a lecture to the NY Guild of Handweavers last month, titled Thou Shalt Wash Thy Fabric when it comes off the Loom (which incidentally I am also giving at Convergence in Long Beach, CA in July) a Q and A session developed.  I love Q and A’s, they present thought provoking questions, ones that I don’t always have rote answers for, and the subject of my journey with breast cancer came up for discussion. After posting a blog that mentioned the lecture, I got this comment in one of the posts.

“Daryl, you gave an inspiring, educational, fun program, and the NY Guild of Handweavers was delighted. You are always so energetic, positive and enthusiastic. During your talk, you referred to your breast cancer diagnosis as freeing, and discussed how facing cancer had made you fearless, unafraid to experiment and make “mistakes” My question is this, how did you become fear-LESS? How is it that you did not become fear-FUL i.e.-that there is not enough time/life left to create all you want, explore your ideas, etc? When advised that we should “live every day as if it were our last”, that thought only provokes panic and despair in me. If it is not too personal, would you be willing to share your insights on this subject in a future post?”

This one’s for you Gail!

It was 10 years ago today, 2/22/2002 I woke up from surgery and the surgeon said to me, “I’m sorry, it’s cancer”.  You cannot imagine what goes through your mind, silly stuff, stupid stuff, disconnected stuff.  My response, the only thing I could think of was a quote I heard once on NPR.  “Nothing bad ever happens to an artist, it is all fuel for their work.”  And I really believed at that moment that this was just one more path in the journey, one more chapter in my book.

The morning of my mastectomy, the pastor from the church where I attended met my husband and me at the hospital.  He said to me, “I’m sure you are asking why me?”  I kind of looked at him in surprise, since that had never occurred to me, “Why not me, why would I be exempt from cancer?”

Those first days of my diagnosis were tough, because so much is thrown at you so fast.  You have to make instant decisions on things that can make a difference if you live or die.  So many well meaning friends wrote about all kinds of alternative treatments and helpful suggestions.  My family took the diagnosis pretty hard.  It was kind of surreal, kind of a bad dream, one where you wake up and think, crap, this isn’t going away.

There is a bit of trust that has to come, if I could give anyone one initial piece of advice, it is to find someone you can trust to guide you through this nightmare.  I chose a surgeon I instinctively knew would make decisions in my best interest, and an oncologist that I felt comfortable with, and could also trust to steer me in the direction that was best for me.

I had two young kids.  I had a wonderful husband who was having his own issues about what was happening to me.  I had a loving and supportive family even though they took my diagnosis really hard.  I had a career that I adored and I’d done some amazing things in my 46 years.  I had not a single regret.  The first order at hand for me was to come to terms with my own mortality.  It wouldn’t have been my choice to die at 46.  I really really wanted to raise my kids and see how they turned out.  But sometimes we don’t have the choice.  And I knew that to move forward for me, I needed to be OK with the fact that I might die.

One of my oldest and dearest friends, Candiss, came and stayed with me for a few days.  We cried together, we laughed together, we talked about what I’d done with my life and what I still wanted to do, and together we worked through the possibility that this aggressive, invasive thing might win.  Again, not my choice, but I decided I would accept with grace the path before me, fight with everything I had, and keep my head held high, and not be quiet about it.  I shared with anyone who asked, always with a smile, because I discovered really really early on, that people are attracted to humor and a smile, and no one wants to hear a rabid string of complaints even though they are really really well deserved.

There wasn’t Facebook then, or my blog, email and the telephone were the main ways of reaching a large amount of caring friends at the time, and I encouraged friends and relatives to use email and not the phone and asked everyone who wrote, to please send me really funny, raunchy jokes, things that would make me laugh so hard, that for a brief moment, all was right with the world.  Everyone jumped on that request and I started to measure my days with how many times I had to change my underwear from wetting myself from laughing too hard.  There is some really funny stuff out there…

And so, dear Gail, we come to your query.  How does one face the unfaceable.   You do because you have to.  It isn’t about what happens to you in life.  We all have a story.  It is ultimately what you do with it that really counts.  I knew if I lived through this ordeal, that I’d be stronger, and better able to reach and teach my students and since I spend a lot of time working with my students on body image and self awareness, having lost a breast to cancer made me able to stand on their side of the table and understand like no one else can.  But I had to live through it for that to happen.

I did everything I was told.  And I was really really lucky.  Early detection is critical, especially when the cancer you have is aggressive.  I found the lump myself.  I acted immediately.  It probably saved my life.  And I spent many many hours just hanging in the studio, thinking about who I was as an artist, a mother, a wife, a teacher, a writer and about a hundred other things.  I’d done well with what I’d been given so far.

I remember walking into the studio after one of my 3 hour chemo treatments.  I fared pretty well through chemo, the steroids and pre-drugs gave me manic energy and I had the problem of not being able to sleep.  I looked at my stash, the one I’d accumulated over the course of a lifetime, and I got sort of sad, thinking gee, wouldn’t it be a shame if I died and never used even a quarter of all the stuff I’ve acquired.  What was I waiting for?  If I lived through this, what would I do differently?  Would anyone really care if something I produced wasn’t completely wow, and what good are raw materials when they just sit on the shelf and collect dust?

I looked at a loom that had been occupied by the warp from hell for more years than I care to mention in this post. (Translate warp from hell: 8 shaft block twill with two shuttles, 12 yards long)  It was embarrassing (the photo was dated 1996).  Fear is lack of control.  And yes, I had no control over the ultimate outcome of my disease, but I could give it my best shot.  What I did have control over was everything in that studio.  I could make stuff, and I could explore stuff and I could do what makes me really happy with whatever time I had left.

I tell students all the time when they look at the handwoven fabric in front of them and look at the scissors in their hand and just can’t bring themselves to make that first cut.  I tell them, “No one will die from what you are about to do.”  And I really mean it.  Nothing I’ve ever done or will ever do in my studio can hurt me.  I needed to stop thinking that bad choices and mistakes in fiber were really critical life decisions.  It is just yarn.  And the absolutely worst thing that could ever happen in my studio would be for me to make a decision that just didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.  And for that, I have a pair of shears and I’m not afraid to use them.

The key for me was to put my trust somewhere, and let go of that which I couldn’t control.  And embrace what I could.  And so I dove in with abandon, making some pretty amazing pieces, with no fear, because I’m certainly not going to die from anything in the studio.  I might die from other causes, but not from a cone of yarn.  I finished the loom with the warp from hell, and made that into a pretty amazing coat.  I wrote an article for Handwoven Magazine on designing from the stash, to this day, after writing for 35 consecutive issues, that article still comes up as the most favorite from readers and students.

And bless Madelyn van der Hoogt, who gave me assignments and tasks and kept me rolling along.  When I woke from surgery, there were flowers waiting for me from Interweave Press, along with a note that the next issue was pending and they were featuring all the key players in the magazine and they needed a press photo from me and yes, they knew I had just had a mastectomy and could I put on some make up and fake it and get them a working photo in say, a couple of days?  I know that sounds cold and unfeeling but it had the opposite effect.  I had a future, something to focus on other than the tragedy that my body just experienced.  I probably wouldn’t have put make up on for months, but I came home, climbed in bed, still with the drains in my chest wall, and covered my face in make up and looked like I had the world by the balls.  My husband did a photo shoot, and for fun, we stacked up cans of my favorite comfort food, cling peaches, which is sort of a private joke, and we acted as if…  It was the greatest therapy I could have ever experienced.  We had a magazine to produce…

In the ten years since my diagnosis, I’ve lost a number of friends to cancer.  I’ve seen a number of friends go through the ordeal and come out the other side with many different interpretations of how to move forward.  The pastor who asked me the morning of my surgery “Why me?”; I had the opportunity to remind him of that question years later when he was diagnosed with cancer.  He didn’t make it.  In fact none of us know how long we have, or what kind of quality of life we will have with the life we are given.  We really only have today.  If I can get up and crawl under a loom and still find a way to use the day to celebrate life in some way, then I’ve done my job.  And if I can’t crawl under a loom any more, I’ll find another way to be creative.  It isn’t about what happens to you, it is what you ultimately choose to do with it that counts.

Cancer has a way of really defining what’s important in life.  When it comes right down to it, very little is that important.  Family is right up there, at least for me.  My relationship with my sisters really began in earnest after my diagnosis, my relationship with my husband wobbled a bit, but we got back on track stronger than ever.  And my kids and how they fared through all this was vitally important to me.  I now pick and choose where I put my energy.  I was able to cast off a lot of situations that were weighing me down and not in my best interest.  There is no greater excuse than, “I’ve got cancer”.  And I didn’t judge.  Many of my friends couldn’t be there for me through my ordeal, I understood.  I’m not always able to be there for everyone I love either.  Yet other “angels” stepped in when the need was there, they came in the oddest forms. One magazine reader wrote to me, “Daryl, I’ve just heard you have cancer and I’m devastated.  Please don’t die because I haven’t been able to take a workshop with you yet.”  If that isn’t enough fuel to keep me going I don’t know what is.  Another reader’s dog wrote to me in what turned out to be a year long correspondence.  Duchess had been diagnosed with breast cancer as well.  Duchess and I carried on a wonderful email exchange, and I mourned when Duchess’ owner wrote me to tell me that Duchess had finally died.  I was never alone, and never without the support I needed to make it down the path.  I just had to be open to finding it in places I’d never expected and from people I’d never expected were capable of filling that need.  We are all in this together.  We all walk along different paths, but they cross frequently, and sometimes parallel.  Life marches forward with or without you, and the worst thing I could do for my family and for myself was to drown in self pity and fear.  I wanted to live, but understood that I may not be one of the lucky ones, only time would tell, and I didn’t want to waste a minute of it waiting to find out.

This piece titled "Survivor" is part of my Weave A Memory series, printed on silk, and rewoven back together to celebrate life.

So I made it through ten more years.  I hope there are many many more years to come, because somehow my stash, no matter how hard I tried, is worse than ever.  Way worse…  I want to celebrate each cone of yarn, each new thing I learn, each mistake I make, each seemingly insurmountable task.  And if I only have today, then it will be the most productive and useful day I can make.

Thanks Gail, for asking.  It is good to be reminded how vulnerable we are, how fragile life is and how those of us in the fiber community have a rare gift, that things that come from our hands are healing and will live well beyond our life expectancy.  As a matter of fact, so will that stash…


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Nadine Purcell
Nadine Purcell
February 21, 2012 10:47 pm

Daryl – I too am a cancer survivor. In 1980, at age 45, I found a lump, had a radical mastectomy, and am still here at age 76. I was the Vendor Chairman/Guild Booth Chairman at the ANWG Conference, in Salem, OR 2011. Your blog of your experiences was most inspiring. Thank you!

February 21, 2012 10:52 pm

Thank you, God bless.

February 22, 2012 7:54 am

Daryl… Thank you. I want you to know that knowing you over the last several years has had a strengthening and positive and creative effect on me, out of proportion to the time we’ve actually spent together, due to your attitudes about life and creativity, and your kindness and willingness to give. As you know, I’ve lived through my colon cancer (7 1/2 yrs), my husband’s lung cancer and his passing less than 2 years ago, and I continue to live with my son’s autism. I am alone now with time to create, and when I get stuck I think,… Read more »

February 22, 2012 9:05 am

Fabulous post. You go girlfriend!

February 22, 2012 9:38 am

Daryl, your “Reflections” really lifted my spirits this morning. Although I have not walked the same road as you, life has thrown my husband and me a curve ball when his job was eliminated at year end. We are trying to take joy each day and he is looking for another job, although difficult to find.
Anyway, I abandoned my loom and knitting for two days and will be back weaving today. Thanks for your encouraging, upbeat testimony. I llve in Brooklyn, but would love to be able to take a class from you one day. You are a treasure!

Judy Jones
February 22, 2012 10:07 am

Thank you Daryl for sharing your journey. Whether we are diagnosed with cancer or not, your journey is an inspiration to remember that life is short and that everyday counts no matter how good or bad it is. You are a great asset to our weaving community and I feel privileged to know you and to learn from you. Blessings for the journey!

Sue Bell
Sue Bell
February 22, 2012 11:15 am

Thank you Daryl for the incredibly inspiring testimony. I turned 60 today and am vowing to make the most of every day I have, come hell or high water. Each day is a gift and our job is to make it be one for ourselves and others. ????

Elaine Olinger
Elaine Olinger
February 22, 2012 11:26 am

Daryl, thank you so much for sharing your journey. I’ ve had many wonderful teachers in the Arts over the past 40 years but I have to say you are the most inspirational yet! I’m so thankful that our paths crossed last year at Fiber Forum. keep the journey moving on!

February 22, 2012 12:32 pm

Sweet Daryl, this may be your very most meaningful and inspiring post to date. Thank you.

I begin every day with the thought – what are you waiting for? With every piece I weave, I think of you. Thank you for that too.

Cathy McCarthy
Cathy McCarthy
February 22, 2012 12:34 pm

Daryl, Thank you for your in depth encouragement and sharing from your cancer experience. Your enthusiasm, love of life, and presence in the weaving world has always been an uplifting experience for me. Your positive energy is most rewarding for those who cross paths with you. Thank you for all you have done, and do, to encourage people to live life to the fullest. You are amazing!
Cathy McCarthy

February 22, 2012 4:43 pm

What a great attitude you have. It is a lesson for us all to know people like you that have gotten through the rough parts of life with a smile. By the way I went to NYC yesterday and saw your weaving of your mother-in-law. What a wonderful exhibit and yours is so thought provoking. We loved the Wintergarden and the 911 Memorial. It is good to have enjoyed lunching together these almost 10 years. I hope the “Philosophy Club” can get on a more regular schedule. We had much more time when we were all working! See you soon!

Peggy Bowman
Peggy Bowman
February 22, 2012 6:06 pm

Great wisdom from a generous, gifted and inspiring teacher who touches our lives, hearts and minds. Thank you!

Nancy Hedberg
Nancy Hedberg
February 23, 2012 5:44 am

Daryl, thanks for your beautiful post. It is a great reminder to live every day to its fullest and to forget the ‘fear’. Here’s to another 10 years of good health and 10 more years of playing and experimenting!

Nancy Hedberg
Nancy Hedberg
February 23, 2012 5:44 am

Daryl, thanks for your beautiful post. It is a great reminder to live every day to its fullest and to forget the ‘fear’. Here’s to another 10 years of good health and 10 more years of playing and experimenting!

Mom, with love
Mom, with love
February 23, 2012 10:28 am

Bernie and I are so proud of you! We both agree that your blog needs to be published, no if ands or buts. This is inspiration for all who need an uplifting read. Go, my dear daughter, and live, love and inspire. We love you.

Sandra Rowland
February 24, 2012 11:15 am

Gee. I was just whining about how my current work was out of my comfort zone and maybe too hard. I feel after reading your blog that I can leap onto my enormous messy stash andget on with it!
Cancer pares things down but it didn’t get you down for long.
Thank you for sharing with fiber folk you haven’t (YET) met, like me!

February 24, 2012 9:59 pm

It is so special to have you as my big sister. I admire you so much. And Daddy would be really really proud of you. Love, Silver

Elizabeth Klatt
February 27, 2012 10:39 am

Daryl, I was delighted to have been able to talk with you and ” dinnered” with you when you were here in the Quad Cities for the workshop. Your blog is most impressive… so articulate and inspirational. And, yes, I have now seen your Mother’s comment and it is truly most memorable. Wonderful. Betsy

I will long remember your Inkle class at Midwest!

Jacquie Reith
Jacquie Reith
February 28, 2012 3:08 pm

Daryl, I just found a note on my calendar to check and see if Thursday had freed up so I could sign up for your Color and Inspiration class on Weavolution. Unfortunately I am in Williamsport, PA for the funeral of my dear cousin Maureen who has just lost a valiant fight against very aggressive breast and brain cancer. Then I started reading blogs to pass time while waiting for her sisters, and found this wonderful post from you. I am so happy you have had a different outcome. I found your post to be inspirational and uplifting, especially at… Read more »

February 29, 2012 8:38 pm

Thank you – what a love you are.

Gisela McDonald
Gisela McDonald
February 29, 2012 8:51 pm

with you arriving on the 22nd and my last minute things to do I had not read your “Reflections” blog. I finally did, and I want you to know that this one is a “keeper”!! I will keep it in a special place and whenever I need to be reminded of the really important things in life, I will take a look at it again!
You made it through 10 years and I am sure that there will be many, many more to come!
Hugs, Gisela

candiss cole
March 2, 2012 8:00 pm

I am so sorry that it has taken me so long to read your recent blogs. I just got to Reflections and it really took me back to the day you called to tell me of your diagnosis. I remember driving up to New Jersey and you and I sitting in the bed together, just being honest and truthful with each other. One of the things I love most about our friendship. I also remember the day you went into surgery and Kevin and I were left together as you were pushed into the OR. He turned to me and… Read more »

March 7, 2012 11:07 pm

Daryl, I cant express how much this post means to me. Thank you.

Lillian Whipple
Lillian Whipple
March 20, 2012 12:16 am

And Daryl 10 years later you’re coming to our CNCH 2012 conference to teach. Thanks for sharing your journey.

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