1985

Being parents required constant adjustment. We began to regard our neighborhood with apprehension and to worry about whether it was safe. It shared nothing with where we’d come from. Mary Ann had spent her childhood in a suburban, tree-filled bedroom community on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, and my family had lived between the Philadelphia suburbs and Pennsylvania farm country, where a neighbor might be a ten-minute walk away across a field or creek. We were raising Eve instead on a dirty and rough city street, at the end of a long row of five-story tenements punctuated by air shafts.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

We needed a respite from city life and decided we should buy a country house. Open space and nature would be refreshing and inspiring. Mary Ann could get more studio space and a setting for her sculpture—her pieces would look great in a landscape, and she could see what materials would last outside. And we’d be able to open the door and let Eve run around. She was enrolled at the City and Country School—how fitting to give her some wide-open space.

We spent more than a year looking at properties, taking Eve from school early Friday afternoons and driving with realtors from one property to another, first west of the city, then north. One lovely property overlooking the Hudson had been photographed without revealing the high voltage power lines that marched across the fields right behind the house. One place was cheek by jowl to a state prison, another was up a steep driveway and accessible only by foot when it snowed. Early in the evening on one of those Fridays, we pulled into the fifth house of the day, and I was too worn out to go in. I stood with Eve in my arms and enjoyed a long view across fields and woods of a ridge five miles away. When Mary Ann came back out, she told me sadly about the clothesline in the living room and the black eye on the woman who’d shown her around. She headed towards the car to get away, but I said, “I like this place.” It was small, a two-story tenant farmhouse built in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was run down. There was a small barn in terrible shape. On the positive side, the view was wonderful, the property’s sixty acres included fields and woods, and it was only a two-hour drive from the loft.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

Cancer didn’t cross our minds. We didn’t know anybody who had it, no one among family or friends. We were making art, earning money, and raising a child. Our loft by itself required lots of time and resources, and we had just added to that a house in the country. Our lives were brimming over.

We were vital and energetic, strong and healthy; annual physicals were just another item on the to-do list. Our doctor, a referral I’d gotten from a family member, had an enormous office on Park Avenue, in the swanky Upper East Side’s Silk Stocking District. Everything was spacious and serene, and bad news was out of place. When he told Mary Ann that her “psa levels were high” and that she “really ought to see a specialist,” he offered no specifics. Whatever we intuited, we weren’t willing to engage: we didn’t ask questions, and we went back to our busy lives. Something must have registered, though, because within a few weeks Mary Ann felt a lump in her breast. That’s when we went to see a specialist, who advised her to stop drinking coffee for a month.

At the follow up visit, she was scheduled for a biopsy. When she got the results, I was away on assignment again, just like when she told me she was pregnant. I was in Minneapolis this time, following a corporate raider.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

I called home on a pay phone between the restrooms in a bar where I was grabbing some dinner, and Mary Ann told me the lump was cancerous and she needed surgery. A drunk young man waiting to use the phone got angry that I was taking too long, leaned close, and yelled, “Thanks a lot! I need to call my mother! She’s in the hospital with cancer!” It was such an unexpected intrusion into a painful and intimate conversation, yet hindsight makes it underscore how our reality had tipped over into the incomprehensible, a mix that would prove to be painful, noble, absurd, selfish, and even funny. For all that we resisted, we ultimately had to surrender and accept whatever happened over the ensuing years.

The news was truly impossible to comprehend. We understood that we needed to do a good job of visiting doctors, getting tests, and making hospital arrangements; the fact that Mary Ann had an illness that could kill her, if we understood that at all, was a far off notion. Our friends seemed to have more clarity than we did—just like when Eve was born, they all had opinions about what we should do and how we should feel. The word “cancer” certainly got their attention. I remember standing in front of Eve’s preschool with four young mothers riveted to my news that Mary Ann was sick. I looked at them looking at me, and I giggled. I was nervous at delivering awful news and conflicted about getting their attention that way. A huge part of my world was collapsing. Almost more important than being my wife and the mother of my child, Mary Ann was my buddy and my confidant; the thought of losing her was terrible, but it also suggested new possibilities. Whether or not I chose to pursue them, the glimmerings of life without Mary Ann shook me.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

I didn’t experience my father as a day-to-day parent, since he and my mother separated when I was one. He was still a powerful model. My father was a man of great charm, chiseled features, bright eyes, and a body as lean and muscular as a prize athlete. He believed that divorce was the best way to deal with the problems that arose in his marriages. It was not until his fifth wife that he found a woman whose common sense and strength of character provided the chemistry necessary for a solid union, one that has now lasted nearly fifty years. My father’s mother—my grandmother—said of his liaisons that he was “in love with love,” a comment that could just as well have been about herself: her desertion of her husband and their three boys for her lover was the root of my father’s adult behavior.

I knew his history and was sure that he would have run from illness. I didn’t want to do that—to recapitulate his story. Besides, I was sufficiently scarred by my mother and father’s split, and the ongoing way they carped and complained about each other, that I was incapable of considering the option of divorce. It’s obvious looking back that Eve was dealing with plenty of instability already; it was a good instinct not to add the anxiety and self-blame that children experience in a broken home. I was determined to confront and solve any problems I encountered in my own marriage. Instead of fleeing crisis, I drew it closer, focused on the small things instead of the big ones, and quelled my stress through managing the intricacies of each day.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
 

Mary Ann began to seek out other artists who were dealing with physical and emotional trauma, and she decided to put together a show of work that used the human body to interpret extreme experience. 1985 started with her diagnosis and her two surgeries and ended with “The Figure as an Image of the Psyche” opening at Sculpture Center, on East 69th Street. She included a piece she’d just made that she called “Supplicant.” It was a larger-than-life woman shown from the waist up with four stacked breasts, ribbed wings, and a bald head tilted to the sky, mouth open and tongue protruding. It was a masterful expression of what she’d been through, and her piece and her show were acclaimed in The New York Times. In a gesture of love and support; to honor her will and productivity, especially in the face of all she was going through; and to tease her gently about her large ambitions, I had the review laminated onto a piece of wood, which she happily hung on the wall in her office.

—Rock In A Landslide

 
Kelly Nowels