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The 14th floor of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto is an art gallery of sorts.
Its plantless courtyard displays a group of sculptures depicting men, women and children. Recalling the échorchés of bygone illustrated medical atlases, these dancing metal figures leap and squat, their skin stripped from their bodies to reveal bones and musculature. Pieces of steel, crusted by time and the elements, form sharp skeletons rounded out at the ribs, buttocks and biceps.
“What do you say they are again?” my mother asks, her IV pole in tow. “Aychorshays?”
I drone on about my graduate seminar on the politics of medical representations and the animation of corpses in anatomy books until another patient walks by.
“Enjoying your walk?” my mom asks.
“It’s my Central Park,” he replies.
We are in the hematology ward, 14A.
As I walk the halls, I’m filled with pride for Canada’s generous and cutting-edge universal health care system, and sadness at why I am getting to know it first hand.
At 69, my mom is one of the oldest patients here. Eight months ago, she could walk two kilometres for grocery shopping, and swim with my three-year-old in Florida. She already had terminal leukemia but we didn’t know it.
Like my mother, most patients are here for a chemotherapy regimen: seven days receiving chemicals by intravenous followed by four to eight weeks to recover and hope for remission and a possible stem-cell transplant.
Confined to the hospital because of their suppressed immune systems and reliance on blood transfusions, these patients walk the halls of this small space – once around the nurses’ station, past the very sick young woman and the witty pretty one, past the visiting room and the family that brings in the delicious breaded chicken, then back to the elevators and the échorchés.
Pictures line the walls along their walk. Some are beautiful. I like the bright yellow painting of a girl made by a patient, and the framed child’s drawing. There is a charming watercolour, and even the posters telling us to “remember to wash your hands” and “report any coughing or diarrhea” are not all that bad in design.
Suddenly, my mother stops in front of a framed colour print. “I hate this one,” she says.
The picture is of a boy fishing from a rock, and there’s a ghostly image of his grandfather in the background, hunched over and faintly rendered. “I can’t believe they have this here,” my mom says. “Wait, this one is worse.”
The next print shows two empty Muskoka chairs on a cottage dock in the fall, and is titled The Last Visit. It is hokey and seemingly harmless. But my mom gets teary, and then I do too. We know there won’t be another cottage season for us as a whole family.
My father arrives and wonders what is going on. It is strange to be crying here, in front of these awful artworks. So we start to laugh. “I’m going to avoid this stretch,” says my mother as we continue walking the loop.
Later that afternoon, we talk about the pictures and our reactions to them. All have been donated in memory of a friend, a parent, a sibling or a spouse. We don’t mock the tastes of others or the intention of the givers. Nor do we blame anyone – everything about these artworks and their display is grounded in love and generosity.
The problem is that many of these pictures were chosen while mourning. They are memorials, and carry the weight of tombs.
I fantasize about taking them down and putting them in a small room, one framed picture above the other from floor to ceiling, along with their tiny brass plaques – like a memorial wall in a cemetery. These pictures need to be placed somewhere to remember the dead, not here, where the living are pulling their clanking IVs along the linoleum, performing feats that make marathoners look weak.
I wonder if my visceral reaction is due to my occupation – I am an art history professor.
When I ask nurses and doctors their thoughts about them, most say they have never looked or noticed. They are busy. I don’t blame them for not looking at art when their objects of study demand close visual examinations with life-or-death consequences.
Nonetheless, whenever my mom introduces me as her daughter the art historian, the talk turns to the pictures. The patients know them well. The wonderfully witty woman down the hall has even covered up one in her room on account of its fading sunset, its memorial plaque and what they imply.
When I leave the hospital after my visit, I pass the portraits of the men (and some women) who greeted me when I first arrived on the ground floor. Suited and stiff, or elegantly dressed and posed, these doctors, researchers and donors are celebrated through paint and photography.
Art matters here in the foyer: It lets us know who is important and to whom we should be thankful. But art also matters on the 14th floor: It starts conversations, creates environments, makes us laugh and cry. Art donated in memory of a loved one should not reflect the grief of the living, but embody the joy, energy and authenticity of the deceased.
My mother died in March. I am still looking for the perfect picture to donate.
Mary Hunter lives in Montreal.