Pam Hogeweide’s writing has always struck me as gutsy and straight from her heart. But her recent post about her son’s cancer diagnosis–and how art was saving her life–hit me especially hard. I spoke to her about how saying yes to upside down beauty–art and illness and grief, all wrapped together–is helping her survive.
Could you talk a little about your son’s diagnosis?
In September, within two weeks of school starting, he got a crazy headache. The doctor diagnosed him with migraines.
Then the nausea started. Fatigue. He got a virus, and was throwing up. Then he got a cough.
We kept taking him back to the doctor, and they kept ruling things out. Someone prescribed vitamins—but at that point, he’d lost forty pounds.
My best friend visited. She hadn’t seen him in a year, and when she saw him, she burst into tears.
Cancer never occurred to me, which is funny, because I’ve been worried about this kid since before he was born. He had a birth defect in his renal system. It was so serious that he might not have survived; he had four surgeries before the age of two.
This past fall, I finally took Jeramy to a naturopath, because I thought it was food-related. We live in Portland—everything is food related.
The naturopath asked questions. She asked about his symptoms. She found swollen lymph nodes.
Later, she called me. She’d talked to an oncologist, and Jeremy needed to see someone right away.
He had every single symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And even though we didn’t know for sure what stage the cancer was at, I knew it was advanced.
Still, even though he was eventually found to be at stage four, the cancer responds well to treatment. There’s a high success rate.
But especially with this kid, especially with all he went through as a baby—it’s hard to face it down. I cried a lot. This is the second major health crisis in his life, and he’s only seventeen.
Tell us about making art during and after your son’s diagnosis.
A local artist I love named Kelly Ray Roberts announced her first online art course right as Jeramy was almost diagnosed. I wanted to take the course so bad—but I had just been laid off, and my son was sick. It was really spendy.
But I know myself. With this kind of stress, and this kind of fear—it would be very easy for me to numb myself with wine, eating, TV. And I thought, “Man, art could become a great, healthy way to cope.”
My husband is our financier—just to be clear, we partner in everything, but he is the numbers guy—and I talked to him about it.
“We can handle it,” he said.
I had my first course the very week my son was diagnosed.
In the first session, everyone introduced themselves. I thought, “No way am I going to go into all we’re dealing with now.” So I was very generic and vague.
Then all these people started pouring out their stories, their vulnerability.
So I posted again, and explained everything that was happening. And I got great support from these creative women. We’re all making art as a way to get through whatever is going on in our lives.
I’m a writer. You’d think I’d turn to writing right now. But I find it easier to go to a place where I don’t have to search for words.
It seems like painting would be more physical.
Exactly. Especially because I don’t use paintbrushes at all. I use my hands and fingers to paint, and I get it everywhere. It’s the single best way to cope. As Jeramy was diagnosed, I brought his medical papers and layered them into the art I created. I would just cry.
Another thing that’s helping: some of the women in the course started talking about art abandonment projects. You create art, and then leave it in a public place for someone to find.
It completely changes the tone of the creativity. You surrender completely, because you’re not keeping it or giving it away to a friend.
Now, when I have extra pieces of painted canvas, I’ll slide them into inconspicuous places at the hospital, and later, when I look, they’re gone.
It’s another way of coping in the fear and the worry. It helps me not be consumed by myself and my son.
You wrote candidly about how you went through a period of blaming yourself for your son’s diagnosis. Why is it so tempting to blame ourselves?
I heard a quote once: “When a baby is born, so is mother’s guilt.”
It’s universal. We want to protect our kids; and it’s hard when there’s a disease inside their body.
But to deal with the guilt, I had to recognize it. It helped to be in Kelly’s class, because she teaches us to quiet down so we can listen.
It was in that listening that I was able to hear the guilt in my own heart. I had turned on myself.
“I should have noticed,” I thought. “We should have been eating better, not living in the city with all the toxins. I should have…”
I realized I could not carry that kind of guilt.
I’ve found Brene Brown’s work really helpful. She says that when you have shame, the best thing to do is be vulnerable with people you trust.
That was a big part of being freed for me.
I was very intentional. I have a group of women—my tribe. I told them straight up, “This is hard.” I invited those women to help me carry the guilt.
When you’re in pain, it’s tempting to isolate yourself. But I need to be healthy in all this heart stuff so I can be the best mom I can.
A lot of people get twitchy about the “artist” label. Is that ever something you struggle with?
I’ve been doing collage art and mixed media for eight years now. When I started, I would give away my work, and I never called myself an “artist”.
Then once I was at a women’s event where everyone brought art to show. And a woman approached me and asked if she could buy one of my pieces.
I didn’t even know what to do. So I ran over and found another artist and asked for help.
I began to realize that I’m an artist even though it’s not how I make my living. Art is really powerful for me, especially because I often incorporate affirming words and mantras into the art.
I’ve been writing for over ten years, and I’d always hoped to break to the next level, and increase my reach. You have to have a lot of stamina and perseverance to write, and I’ve always pushed myself, had book projects in mind, an editorial calendar.
Then Jeremy got diagnosed. And I shelved all my writing. Every day, I wonder, shouldn’t I be writing instead of making art?
I have to be kind to my writer’s self, and say, it’s okay.
Kathy Escobar says we have to focus on what is life-giving to us. That is such a simple way to get down to what matters.
Right now, making art is life-giving. It’s how I express myself when I feel freest.
Pam Hogeweide is an established faith writer with a reputation for telling it true and saying it strong. Pam, who grew up in the neon drenched city of Las Vegas, Nevada, lived in Hong Kong for nearly seven years where she discovered the value of learning from other perspectives. “I feel that those years overseas helped make me a stronger thinker and writer,” says Pam.
Pam has been blogging since 2005 and has been published in numerous print and digital publications including Christianity Today and Geez magazine. Her first book, Unladylike, released in 2012. She makes her home in Portland, Oregon with her husband Jerry and their two teenagers as well as a stray cat who she finally let into the house.
Artwork by Pam Hogeweide