On September 25th, 2015, Mr. Starshaped and I celebrated our 11th anniversary at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, downtown Chicago, awaiting a surgery that was to remove a mass in his chest. The operation was described to us as 'kind of laparoscopic, but with chopsticks that have robots at the end.' To make light of the situation, printer's devil Jo and I collaborated on this print:
Within a few hours we learned the mass could not be removed; not only had it grown substantially from the previous scan, it was very definitely cancer. While Mr. S slept that night, I went to Starshaped and built this tiny form, determined to salvage something of our anniversary:
We waited two excruciating weeks to receive devastating biopsy results. The tumor was indeed a rare and aggressive sarcoma, and it had already spread to his lower spine and hip.
To distract during this time I threw myself into The Well-Traveled Ampersand, spending many late nights taking out frustration and fear on these elaborate projects. But then little forms appeared in my head in time to the music that was pulling me through a dark time. I saw them so clearly that I set them quickly, pulling other people's words that filled the spaces where I could produce none.
A testament to my love for Mr. S started the flow, followed by the Ida song that has pulled me through every journey made over the course of our relationship; every theater he worked in another state, every flight to New York to learn new theatrical technology and now this unknown path that felt like he was heading into an unpredictable and unforgiving sea. The Walkmen gave us a rally song.
I had no plan for these type forms. Much like the run to the restroom when you know you're going to vomit, I raced to the studio at night after every More Bad News appointment to let another form escape. They spilled out, in 30-60 minute spurts, not unlike therapy sessions (though these didn't involve set times and insurance companies.)
While waiting on conclusive scans in October, I learned of the death of Carey Lander from the Scottish band Camera Obscura, struck down by the same crappy sarcoma that we were now facing. The sheer ruthlessness of this cancer and its penchant for attacking young people was a crushing blow.
Their words appeared again, inspired by the incessant and absolutely necessary text messages I received throughout a Saturday from Matt Rieck, my 'other work husband' as Mr. S warmly refers to him. A day filled with beautiful and distracting images of monograms from the Genesee Center for the Arts pushed this out of me:
More on Matt later. He's important.
I also learned, through mutual friends, that Sue Miller, the wife of Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, but more importantly to me one half of Lounge Ax, the seminal club I spent many, many nights at before it shuttered in 2000, also suffered through a near identical cancer to Mr. S and came away from it battered but intact. Wilco songs percolated in moments of hope.
On the day of the failed surgery in September I escaped the stale waiting room to buy records. I picked up the solo album by Mac McCaughan of the band Superchunk, potentially my favorite of 2015. Two songs immediately went on constant repeat in my brain.
At the end of October we were introduced to the world of chemotherapy. I'm thankful for Mr. S's brother who came to help the first day, as well as the best friend that flew in for the weekend to see it through. This gave Jo and me a chance to escape for a long weekend, because we learned that no matter how committed we are to going through this together, we still need to have time independent of each other and can take advantage of the large support network that was gathering around us.
Chemo is terrible. I have watched it take my husband's hair, his muscle tone, his energy, his appetite, his ability to find fulfillment at work and occasionally his dignity. If you have spent time in hospitals, you'll recognize the agonizing details in every line of this Sleater Kinney song:
Shortly after the first round and a few days into thinking he could still work, I dragged Mr. S and Jo to the Hamilton Wood Type Museum annual Wayzgoose. This was a very low point. It was clear immediately that Mr. S just needed to sleep (and so did I, not having done so that entire week), and that the personal superseded the professional and I couldn't escape into print and design conversations like every other year. This was also exacerbated by the fact that I was a volunteer and worked the event as opposed to wandering about at large. Why didn't I skip this year? Mostly I tell myself I wanted Mr. S to see my important place in the community and that his support of me over the years was not in vain. This task wasn't successful, but it ultimately didn't need to be. I also sought a sense of normalcy with my work that was not to be achieved in one weekend away.
I woke up early each day and paced the lakefront, sobbing and losing myself in the angst of Frightened Rabbit to exorcise the exhaustion and icky feeling. And I counted the hours until I could get him home safely again. It was clear that travel wasn't going to work.
We live by a bridge that crosses the Chicago River. When I traverse it in the morning I know the day has started. When I trudge over it at night I'm ten minutes from home. Pausing at the top, and depending on the time of day, we see rowers, nature walkers, ducks, a sneaky heron. It's the body of water that has grounded us since purchasing our little home in 2009.
As a private person, the outpouring of support has been hard to swallow and not because I eschew the attention for Mr. S. For weeks, friends and family would show up at the studio, food was coming in droves, money appeared in the mail and I suddenly had what I now refer to as 'my part-time cancer job' of maintaining and art directing our new, very public, life. Every bit was appreciated but being so new to this, I had to develop strategies for maintaining our home, our child, my full-time job and my ailing husband. The studio languished; then overqualified printers from around the world started showing up and somehow, miraculously, work was accomplished.
The Starshaped interns that come in to help from time to time (and the current roster isn't doing it for school credit or money; they just keep showing up) have been patient and kind and funny. They take me out of myself and make me laugh. On one particularly productive day, I vented about trying and failing to manage all of the assistance we were now receiving and Isabella said this, pulled from a legal case she had just read about:
Not a song, but absolutely perfect.
Sometimes the forms feature funny or uncomplicated lyrics that tie into our history:
Mr. S affectionately calls me 'Dummy,' and The Minutemen are one of his favorite bands. We had the Dylan song 'New Morning' sung at our wedding, in a moment marked by the standing of my brother-in-law in a show of affection, a brother currently fighting his own war with cancer and chemo. The one benefit of Mr. S being home so much now is that we have time to talk, and we do go on about many anecdotes of our last 15 years together. And we hold onto these things.
Subconsciously I knew the chemo wasn't working. But we didn't know until December 8th that it was not just failing, but the cancer had spread significantly in multiple places as well as having caused a fracture in his spine. A new course was needed asap. I left Mr. S with his visiting sister that night and raced for the studio as another form was bubbling, painfully. This type will surely rust from tears. No matter that it's 4 point type (on a 6 point body); I couldn't see it anyway.
As we move forward, there's a new path in many ways. I learned to direct all of our support. I know I need to reduce my workload at the studio and that this will affect what jobs I take and when. I know Mr. S needs what he needs to get through one hour at a time.
But these forms kept coming and with so many piling up, something needed to happen. 'Print them for me' he said, and so I have.
I cut scrap paper from The Well-Traveled Ampersand to 4.75" squares, planning to print 30-40 of half of the forms and 200 of the rest so that I'd have extra pieces to submit for my APA membership requirements in 2016. I built 25 forms, significant for the date of our anniversary and life-altering news in September. 'True Love' was additional in case I needed it for any reason.
Each form is set to print as one color, but I wanted the final collection for Mr. S to be special. The studio's Christmas gift was a set of 120 beautiful German colored pencils so that I could test my latent drawing ability. Coloring brought in a whole new aspect to the therapeutic nature of this project and the results were cathartic.
There was no rhyme or reason to the order of coloring; if I was inspired with an idea for one then that was the one on deck. Here are snippets of the final pieces.
Going into this part of the project, a way to house the prints was needed. It wasn't appropriate to frame them as they feel more personal than that, like they should be kept on a bedside table and not explained to house guests. I asked Matt if he could make a simple wooden box to hold them. He created something so truly beautiful it made me gasp. Matt is the person who checks in every day ('what are you printing today?' 'what's going on Farrell?') and talks to me like life is completely normal right now. He sends pictures of fantastic type, especially ampersands, shares anecdotes about making type as well as family stories and makes me laugh. He is, as Jessica Spring says, the guyfecta: smart, thoughtful, funny.
The final print is from what I've often considered a theme song for me and Mr. S. Every lyric could be represented but I opted for this one as the memories of shoveling out our little Chicago bungalow during the last blizzard are actually warm ones, shared with our neighbors.
Now the project is nearly complete, with just the song credits to print on the back of each piece. I am grateful to the musicians who could say what I was unable to squeak out. I gave this to Mr. S as a Christmas gift, which felt more like handing over my heart in a box. It's our project, not just mine. But the tiny forms have run their course and no more are presenting themselves in my head. This is the physical manifestation of the tough turn our lives took this Fall and has given me the tools necessary to approach future projects.
There will be fewer Starshaped jobs for the foreseeable future while I focus on finishing current commitments and overhauling a few of the things we've always done. It is absolutely crucial that the work coming from the studio be the best, most enlightened and forward-thinking work I have ever done. Mr. S has long considered Starshaped the Family Business, even though it has never been the most lucrative option, and the confidence and joy that inspiring work gives me is ultimately the most soothing medication for my other half.
If you're interested, the Spotify playlist of all the above songs is available here.
Hundreds (literally) of family members, friends, printers and stagehands have taken the helm of our lives for us and guided us through the rough seas. We are currently printing special projects to thank them all and these will get their own blog post in the near future.