By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Wanda Michael's 30-year-old daughter, Stacy Gross, died from lymphoma Feb. 17, 2008, at 5:50 a.m. But in Stacy's art, her mother says, she's alive.
She lives in the portraits she painted so meticulously that they look like camera snapshots. She lives in the emotion that seems tangible in her subjects and in the precise symmetry of a simple flower she put to canvas.
Now, through her work, Stacy is helping other families struggling with cancer.
After her daughter's death, Michael, who lives in Gaithersburg, started Stacy's Helping Hands, a foundation that sells prints of Stacy's artwork. The money raised is for West Penn Manor, a building of apartments for cancer patients and their families, who often travel from out of town for treatments at Western Pennsylvania Hospital, known as West Penn Hospital, in Pittsburgh. West Penn Manor provides a close getaway from the hospital for families like Michael's with relatives undergoing cancer treatments, Michael said.
"You need to get away," she said. "It's important that [families] can have some semblance of everyday life. You're not eating the hospital food, hearing the hospital sounds, smelling the smells."
But the apartments, which families use for free, are in desperate need of upgrades, said Beverly Beisgen, director of operations for the West Penn Hospital Foundation. The building has 12 apartments, only five of which are habitable, she said. The available ones have dated features and carpeting in a three-story building with no elevator, and renovations would cost at least $350,000.
Although sales of Gross's artwork have been modest, Michael is ambitious about what can be done to improve the apartments. Besides abandoning the carpeting, she would like to help add newer furnishings, computers with Internet access and more artwork. She donated 17 prints of her daughter's paintings.
Michael and Gross's husband, Ralph, who lives in Pittsburgh, operate the foundation. The orders are taken and shipped from Michael's Gaithersburg home.
Just as art was the release for Gross in her fight with cancer, Stacy's Helping Hands does the same for Michael in her fight against the grief of losing her daughter. It's her way to remember her and her creativity, Michael said recently while sitting at her kitchen table.
Gross's painting carried her through 5 1/2 years of struggling with cancer, Michael said. For five weeks after her daughter died, Michael worked on a scrapbook encapsulating her life.
She opened the scrapbook, which sat before her on the table. Within are letters young Stacy sent home from Brownie camp. She wrote notes in the form of a self-made questionnaire (to describe the bathrooms, she checked the "smelly" box), and sketched meticulous crayon drawings in the margins.
Michael flipped through more pages, capturing the college years, when Gross studied graphic design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and went to work as a graphic designer for the university's engineering department after she graduated. Those pages are filled with examples of her class work and department report covers that she designed.
On May 21, 2002, Gross went to a doctor with a nasty, persistent cough, fatigue and dry skin; she left with a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage 2B.
The scrapbook reflects how her art then changed. On the next few pages, many of her works involve her lungs and her frustration with them, Michael said. Her daughter required oxygen and had to haul a tank with her. She had started on a respirator shortly before she died.
Gross grew frustrated, her mother said, but she persevered.
"She did not let the cancer take over her life," Michael said. "She never thought it would do her in."
With that, Michael closed her scrapbook.
For information about the foundation, visit http://www.stacyshelpinghands.org.