West Toward Recovery
George and Wendy Rodrigue recall a sometimes frightening year of projects, prognosis and progress.
ANDREA MCHUGH PHOTOGRAPH
CARMEL, Calif. – In a town without addresses, the road to recovery doesn’t show up on GPS, so it’s best to meet at the grocery store nestled at the bottom of the mountain.
On a wine country summer day that should be bottled and sold to the rest of us, Wendy Rodrigue steps out of a silver Mercedes convertible, pointing to a house you can’t see from here. George is up there painting today. Just like yesterday. Wendy attaches unexpected reverence to that bit of news as salted peninsula winds butt-in to dance with strands of hair forever immortalized on canvas. After 15 years of marriage, she’s still a painting come to life – a Jolie Blonde sporting hip librarian glasses that make her look like a local, and traces of a panhandle accent that assures everyone she’s not.
Wendy turns the ignition. A left, a right and two more lefts take her to where the street signs end. The cliff-hugging, poorly defined path bridles the horses underneath the hood as the elevation and property values continue to climb. Clouds nearly reach to eye level. Suddenly, the road deposits unto a sprawling 22-acre compound. Once the marine layer burns away, you can see 40 miles into the valley.
Crunches of feet atop gravel cut the tranquility for only an instance. Neighbors are neither seen nor heard. Cell phone service is fickle, at best – a blessing more than a nuisance. Deer drink from the fountain out front. Bobcats and mountain lions roam the undisturbed hills around back. Humidity is a unicorn. Spanish moss melts from the limbs, airy mementos of home, to which they’ll one day return.
Otherwise, it’s Oz compared to New Orleans.
They are here, well, because they always come here. George first discovered this artistic enclave in college, and three decades later opened a quaint gallery in downtown Carmel. Before the Rodrigues bought this secluded property, they rented a couple of others, choosing to spend their summers away from the equally suffocating social scene and soupy air of south Louisiana.
What is different, though, is the extended stay. There is no firm date to leave. Might be a year. Might be two years. Might be longer. The thumping heartbeat of New Orleans – a sound they’ll never stop loving and confess they’ll soon miss – made it impossible for the Rodrigues to recover physically, mentally and spiritually from the trials of the past 12 months.
In the summer of 2012, doctors performed a biopsy on tissues taken from George’s spinal surgery in which two defective vertebrae were strengthened and filled with cement. The diagnosis: Stage 4 lung cancer. To most it’s a death sentence – a fate George dodged thanks to a rare mutation enabling doctors to ward off the disease with a single pill. Status check-ups occur every three months, and thus far all have been positive. Still, it’s raw to the Rodrigues – pain chased away last week by slow dances to Stevie Wonder. Though they’ll share today, frankly they don’t like thinking about cancer.
So Wendy talks on, about her new book hitting the shelves this month, about packing for Vegas tomorrow, about how you once couldn’t eat ice cream on the streets here until former Mayor Clint Eastwood (yes, that Clint Eastwood) changed that stupid granola fascist law, when a touch on the shoulder disturbs her stream of consciousness. She looks back; it’s George.
The dark patches hugging his eyes and the freckles of paint and grease staining his sleeves validate his account of working until 3:30 a.m. last night on a commissioned Mardi Gras Blue Dog piece he’ll complete after dinner – though the expression on a face oozing more character than beauty tells a different story. He feels good. Real good. Looks good, too. Priorities are in order. The TV guy came by today and hooked up George’s 90-incher for LSU football, so that worry is gone. Wendy rolls her eyes.
“We’ll get boudin off the Internet,” he says, opening the front door.
As George walks to the back patio, he passes a painting. The Blue Dog sits atop a raised grave, a tie around its neck and a Jolie Blond hat resting near its paws. The title, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is borrowed from an old George Jones song, the country music star’s passing serving as inspiration. They met once, George says, between sips of an O’Doul’s. Happened at a car dealership in New Iberia. Jones had this issue with his credit, so while the salesman sorted through the finances, the Nashville legend took a seat next to Rodrigue.
“The guy was in a green jumpsuit, and he turns to me and asks what I do,” Rodrigue says. “‘Well, I’m an artist.’ George Jones then goes, ‘Oh really, what do you sing?’”
George laughs the kind of laugh that makes you shake before you smile. Framed by a picturesque view lifted from a break-room motivational poster, he’ll talk for the next hour, flashing a type of radiance impossible not to love as he touches on varied topics such as archaic cell phones, health insurance, even Facebook. Rodrigue’s son, Jacques, and Wendy are a small but captive audience, chipping in occasionally to round out these well-worn stories. George’s animated voice masquerades the fact that he’s not out of the woods, that the cancer isn’t gone, that he’s still required to take powerful medicine loaded with dire side effects and that nine days from now, those pills will rebel against his resilient body.
But, for a moment anyway, it’s easy to forget.
They met on a Monday, Chemo Day.
Little guy, George says. Real, real skinny. Cowboy hat atop his bald head. Hospital gown around his withered frame. He walked slow, but not deliberately, the squeak from the wheels of his oxygen tank announcing each step. A lovable but ornery man, he drank hard, smoked hard and lived hard – perhaps to this end. He had been in treatment at Houston’s Methodist Hospital for months, longing to go back chasing windmills.
“His name was Slim,” George recalls. “Couldn’t tell if he was older or younger – bout my age. He took over the whole room.”
Wendy interjects, “And you can’t get more politically incorrect.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a guy from Texas,” George goes on. “And he yells and I can hear him talking about this Dago from New Iberia. So I yelled, “WHATCHA TALKING ABOUT NEW IBERIA FOR?’”
George being George, they naturally became fast friends, sharing stories between hands of Gin Rummy as if they were sitting on barstools, not hospital beds.
“He’s a professional pigeon racer,” George says. “It’s very serious. You got your pigeons. You put $5,000-$10,000 down on your pigeon. You bring all these pigeons to Colorado City and the first one to show up at your house, you win the lottery.”
They met a lot of people last summer, a period the Rodrigues would just as soon forget, though they’re both smart enough to know that’s unrealistic. A few families stay in touch via email, asking how George is feeling. Fine, mostly. And for that he’s grateful, though he’s not gonna lie, there’s a lot of guilt in answering truthfully. So many of the patients in adjacent beds didn’t stand a chance. Some lost their fight. For a while, George was just like them. Later this afternoon, a friend from Louisiana calls, asking the name of George’s cancer physician, figuring he’s got some secret. He doesn’t. George just lucked out.
“Stage 4 lung cancer isn’t late in the game, it’s basically the end of the game. … (My friends) bought all my paintings once they knew I was sick,” George says solemnly, staring off into nature. “Ain’t no doubt they thought I was dead. …You know, everybody dies. I had a good life. I did a lot.”
George’s voice quivers.
“I, I was sad for everybody else,” George continues. “That’s the thing.”
Protective of her husband, Wendy suggests George change the topic.
George nods and says, “I’m sorry.”
“I can’t talk much about it, but he was truly, truly scared for me and scared for his sons,” Wendy says. “Scared for us. I was with him all the time, and to see that fear in him was very disturbing to me. I was desperate for him not to worry about anything, least of all me. Worry about me? No. But that’s all he thought about.
“Most of the time, he was so sick, that personality wasn’t there,” she continues. “He wasn’t George. I remember writing about this: In the hospital they have you fill out patient questionnaires and they asked if he was depressed. I almost got mad. Of course! Of course he’s depressed! He wasn’t laughing. Not until later.”
By the time doctors discovered the cancer, tumors had spread throughout George’s body. A non-smoker, George suspects (though it can’t really be proven) the roots of his disease date back three decades when he sprayed canvases with a toxic varnish inside an unventilated studio.
“When I got (to Houston), I had no options,” George says. “The doctors go, ‘Hey you got this, and this is what we can do for you.’ No time and no options. I could tell in their face I wasn’t given much of a chance.”
Radiation and chemotherapy began immediately. Doctors outlined their plan, briefing Wendy and Jacques on when and why certain procedures were necessary. They then asked about George’s schedule – could he take time away? Yes, Wendy said sternly. We’re here. We’re staying. Life can wait. Nurses painted blue marks on George’s body, targeting the tumors they’d attack. The day-to-day grind wore on George. Too proud to ride in a wheelchair, George walked back and forth from his hotel room to the treatment center. Wendy mapped out the rest spots – a chair in the lobby, a rail near the elevator. George complained about the down time, so Jacques brought him some paint supplies. George doodled eight tiny sketches and stopped, totally spent. He wouldn’t paint again, at least not here, not on this “Medical Planet” as George described it to Wendy in one of her many blog entries last summer.
For Wendy, writing doubled as a cathartic release. Those trying months in Houston comprise much of the last chapter in her newly released first book, The Other Side of the Painting (UL Press, available Oct. 1). Quick to preface that it’s not a cancer book, Wendy wove together 474 pages of new material and long-forgotten blogs, cracking a window so readers can glimpse into two lives integrated through art and love. Final re-writes and edits were done in Carmel.
“Looking back, I never wrote the word ‘cancer’ in those entries,” Wendy says. “I was intentionally vague, but you can’t suppress the emotion that’s in those paragraphs. Reading it again, it all comes back. So much is personal, too personal. The worst thing was just watching him in so much misery. You just couldn’t wait for this to be over so he can stop feeling so horrible all the time. You wanted it to end.”
After 10 weeks it finally did, on Chemo Day.
The hotel phone rang around 7 p.m., which was late for Wendy and George. He might have been asleep already. Wendy was probably watching Netflix, though she’s not total sure. One the other line was a nurse. Come to the facility. The doctor needs to speak with you. Tired, Wendy and George trudged back, only to be awoken/greeted by a joyful shout: “You’ve won the lottery!” the physician proclaimed.
“What did he say?” George turned to ask.
“I don’t know,” she whispered back.
Biopsy tests revealed George’s tumors contained a rare mutation found in less than 5 percent of lung cancer patients. Most of those are Asian woman. The defect compromises the illness and can be exploited via the antibiotic Tarceva, a targeted treatment that’s believed to block proteins needed for cancer cells to grow and divide. The FDA officially approved the drug in May 2013, 10 months after doctors prescribed it to George. On the medication’s own website, it reads, “The way Tarceva works to treat cancer is not fully known.”
George takes one pill daily at midnight.
“You know, I’ve been lucky my whole life,” Rodrigue says, looking directly at his son, who’s sitting beside him. “I’ve got to give it to whoever is watching me. Jacques knows. He knows what they say about me.
“When he falls in shit, he comes up with a rose,” Jacques says.
“Been like that my whole life,” George says. “A rose from a pile of shit.”
In the lost hours of the evening, after the brushes are rinsed colorless and the pill is swallowed, she watches him sleep. Palm pressed against her cheek, elbow dug into the pillow, Wendy monitors George’s breathing – wishing for it to be smooth, uninterrupted. It is something she never did before and isn’t quite sure why she’s doing now. Just to make sure, she supposes.
“I don’t know if anything is peaceful anymore,” Wendy confesses. “I have a lot of anxiety just naturally, George will tell you. So, I’m in a panic: Is he breathing? I want it to be for a steady amount of time before I go to sleep myself.”
At dinner with friends, Wendy’s delicate hand clings to George’s forearm. They have always been close, though that want is more of a need now. As Johnny Cash blares throughout George’s studio, she’ll excuse herself from the laptop and sit behind him admiring his artistic genius. Earlier this spring, George kept adding flowers next to the Blue Dog. Wendy asked if there was some symbolism to it?
Perhaps a sign of rebirth, of blossoming from a patch of dirt?
No, George said, they’re just pretty.
“I’m looking for the deeper meaning to the bigger picture, but sometimes a flower is just a flower,” Wendy says. “We’ll get there. We’ll absorb this and process this but I don’t know that we want to right now. And I wrote about this in the book, ‘How will we know when or how this has changed us?’ I don’t think either of us can pinpoint that until more time passes.”
There is hesitance to pause and look back, partially because of the moments lost to sickness. Even after his release from Methodist, George didn’t paint for another seven weeks. He could barely lift his head, let alone a brush. By October, Wendy cleared out the office space attached to their third-story New Orleans bedroom and placed down a chair and easel because George wasn’t well enough to make it all the way downstairs to the studio. He painted a couple pieces, but the artistic flow was stunted. Just so many commitments – dinners, parties, charity functions, foundation events – all of it leaching George’s thimble-worth of energy. After one late evening, he turned to Wendy, telling her that he wanted to go to California, he wanted to recuperate, he wanted to slow down.
“I painted until 3:30 last night and woke up at noon,” Rodrigue says. “I can’t do that in New Orleans. I know that. Too many things happening with the foundation, (Wendy’s) things she’s got to go to, and then I got to attend at the museum. And it’s all fine and good, but you got to look at your own self-interests sometimes. A lot of people don’t understand that. Yeah, you’re living the life, but it’s not always your life.
“So this isn’t any big deal,” Rodrigue says of the indefinite relocation. “We’ve gone through a big deal.”