For-Get-Me-Not: Art displays life with stage IV
I met Valerie Roybal in April 2017 at Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Thriving Together: 2017 Conference on Metastatic Breast Cancer. We were both a part of that year’s Hear My Voice class. Although we weren’t roommates and we had arrived in Philadelphia from two very different places—Valerie was a native New Mexican and I traveled from right outside Chicago—over lunch we found that we had one important thing in common: A need to venture outside of the hotel. Me, to have some fresh air and recharge my introvert’s soul, and Valerie for that fresh air, too, but also to find Philadelphia’s Chinatown.
What is the best reaction when someone says they’re going in search of Chinatown? For me, there’s just one reaction and that is, “Can I come along?” We got lost, meandered through the set-up of the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival and finally found Chinatown and the shops Valerie was looking for.
Later, with our roommates, we took part in our first METUP die-in, went out to dinner at a place one of Valerie’s friends recommended, and walked around until we found an ice cream shop. That day and evening are my favorite memories of the conference, ones I have returned to for comfort when I feel lost in the world of metastatic breast cancer.
When I got home, I took a look at Valerie’s art on the internet and was awestruck by the colors and the joy she presented to anyone willing to look. It made me happy to know Valerie was there in her Albuquerque studio, smiling with her friends, perfecting her beekeeping.
She called me in July of 2018 to ask if I would be interested in being part of a grant she was submitting. I wish I had recorded her voice as she explained the concept. She wanted to express through her artwork what it is like to live with incurable cancer. I know that she sometimes felt trapped by the ways metastatic cancer can confine—through pain, for instance—even though the person suffering may look perfectly healthy.
I was intrigued. How would she transform metastatic breast cancer into visual art? I wanted to see it. I immediately signed on to the project. We talked a bit more and then I waited to hear. I waited. And waited. I grew worried.
I waited because Valerie‘s body was busy betraying her. She called me late at night in the fall. She didn’t know how much time she had left. She didn’t think she’d be alive for the conclusion of the project: the For-Get-Me-Not show. The doctors were putting her on a watch-and-wait schedule. I hurt for her. She asked if she could she send me the pictures of the art she’d made and have me send back an essay to accompany them for the grant application. How fast could I do it? I assured her I could write whatever she wanted, as fast as she needed it.
We talked only a few more times after that late night call. She never sent the images. I never asked about them. Instead, we talked about how strange it is to plan your death while you’re in the middle of life, what it’s like to receive an instructional video about dying from the hospice nurse, and how she had the best friends of anyone she knew.
I felt desperate when she died. It felt as though the only way my heart would ever heal was to somehow finish my part of Valerie’s project. I searched for her friends and finally connected with the two women who’d promised her they’d see For-Get-Me-Not through to the show.
I wish Valerie were here to see how so many people have come together to get this work out there. When it is quiet, I can almost hear her laughing about how lucky she is, and picture how her face would have lit up with joy.
Valerie Roybal died of metastatic breast cancer in November 2018. She was an artist, author, and a Hear My Voice volunteer. Martha Carlson, 54, is from Brookfield, Illinois, and a friend of Valerie. She was diagnosed with HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer in 2014, and is a Hear My Voice volunteer. She and others – Heidi Pollard, Sheri Crider and Viviette Hunt – made sure Valerie’s For-Get-Me-Not show went on display at the Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2019.