"Healing Embrace" by Martha Rodriguez at SOMArts in San Francisco.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday, but it's celebrated all over the world. It pays respect to loved ones who've died, often with personalized altars in their honor. On this year's Day of the Dead, San Francisco's Martha Rodriguez had a very special reason to honor her father and celebrate life.
One month before I was diagnosed with leukemia, I felt the presence of my father, who had passed away nine years earlier. It was odd that after years of being gone, he suddenly returned to me. I went about my artwork and tasks and took him with me.
As Dia de los Muertos came around, the feeling, sensation of my dad being near turned to an embrace. I felt his arms around me, and I was wrapped in a feeling of security, safeness and calm.
But along with that safety came fear, because I began experiencing overwhelming fatigue. Walking up to my third floor art studio and even showering became exhausting tasks. Within a month, I was in the E.R. after blood work showed extremely low blood counts.
Once in the hospital, I was confronted with a whole battery of sometimes painful, intrusive tests. Bone marrow biopsies, brain scans and blood transfusions. Over the next eight months, I endured 10 different chemotherapies.
Each came with a whole set of side effects. Losing my hair was one of the least painful. The bombardment of various doctors and their students was another. Each doctor asked the same types of questions and checked my vital signs. I often had to fight the feeling that I was simply a diagnosis, not a person.
Yet through all the pain and alienation, I could see the smiling face of my father. He had a way of talking to people, putting them at ease and making them his friend. He was with me in the hospital. Through his example, I made friends with the nurses, cleaning people and doctors. Like my dad, I chatted with whoever had time. My hospital stay became my life, and the hospital staff, my friends. I felt safe, happy even. My dad gave me the strength to see that I would survive it.
I have been in remission for 20 months now. So on this Dia de los Muertos, I am celebrating life and the memory of my dad. In the tradition of this day, I have built an altar in his honor. It is called "Healing Embrace." I've placed a large photograph of my dad in his early 20s. An aspiring singer, he's smiling with bright eyes and an air of confidence. Surrounding his photo are metallic colored masks representing the spirits of my ancestors, as well as friends who have passed and been present in my recovery. Finally, I included two very large hands formed in an embrace, the embrace of my dad, the love he surrounded me with and the strength he gave me to survive this difficult journey.
Martha Rodriguez is a painter and mixed-media artist with a degree in social welfare from U.C. Berkeley. Her Day of the Dead altar can be seen at SOMArts in San Francisco until November 10.
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