Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Lori Wiener as a pediatric cancer psychologist and researcher. She is a pediatric cancer social worker and researcher. This version has been corrected.
Annette Weller had finished painting the turquoise peacock on the hospital room window and had been working on the pink parrot when the doctor walked in.
Nineteen months after her daughter, Lauren, died in a room nearby, Weller had gotten so she could come to the hospital without getting upset. But the appearance of Crystal L. Mackall, one of her daughter’s physicians, brought back memories.
They embraced, and when Weller resumed work on the window she began to cry. For her, the pediatric unit of National Institutes of Health Clinical Center holds eight years of pain, and, only lately, five months of healing.
What started as a therapeutic window-painting project in her daughter’s room just before she died in 2011 has brought Weller back to paint her whimsical murals in eight other pediatric rooms.
The paintings are big, colorful and splashy — filled with birds, trees and fish — and they brighten the otherwise antiseptic rooms of critically ill children.
They make Weller, 56, of Gaithersburg, think of Lauren. And she hums as she paints them.
One recent Monday, with her painting tools and white, metal step stool, Weller started on her latest mural — her ninth — and spoke about her work.
“My daughter was here for eight years,” she said, as she carried her things through the pediatric unit, greeting people. “She had Ewing’s Sarcoma, which is a very rare form of childhood cancer. That’s how this whole thing started.”
Lauren was 18. “She was in her first year of college,” Weller said. “She was at Frostburg State University. And she called me and said, ‘Mom, I’m coughing blood.’ I said that’s not normal.”
“She went to the hospital and they did an X-ray and found a bunch of tumors on her lungs,” she said. That was in 2004. “Lauren came here and went through many, many, many, many protocols,” she said.
On Dec. 14, 2011, she died in Room 1648. She was 26.
Last month, en route to the room she was assigned to paint, Weller paused in 1648. It was unoccupied, and she raised the window blinds.
There was her first mural — a colorful, psychedelic tree, of greens and blues, with bugs, birds and a butterfly. Lauren called it the “Tree of Life.” It is faded a little now, and Weller said she needed to touch it up.
“I did that . . . the week she passed away,” she said. “I’ve gotten a little bit better at them.”
Near the end, Weller was spending 24 hours a day with Lauren, sleeping in bed with her. “We had a really special connection,” she said. “We were old souls together. We’d been old souls together for many years.
“I wanted to be as close to her as I could get to her because I knew she was dying,” she said.
One afternoon, pediatric cancer social worker and researcher Lori Wiener dropped off a bucket of colored markers and told Weller, “if you want to do something on the window.”
Weller said she is not an artist. She took some art classes in high school. She said she never went to college, and recently retired from the U.S Postal Service.
But she’d had this impressionist image of a tree in her head for years. So she got the window markers, climbed up on the sill and began to draw.
“Lauren loved it,” she said. It glowed in the dark, and made her smile.
But that was in the last few days of her life.
During the years that Lauren battled her disease, she graduated from college, earned a master’s degree, taught school, coached volleyball, married her college sweetheart and became Lauren Weller Sidorowicz.
“She made the best of it,” her mother said.
She named her dog “Chemo.”
Her Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare aggressive pediatric cancer that most often strikes adolescents, had spread by the time it was discovered.
Before she died, Lauren asked her mother to set up a charity that would raise money for distant families to visit sick children at NIH. The nonprofit organization, L-Dub’s Love Inc. — for Lauren’s nickname L-Dub — already has some donations, her mother said.
After Lauren died, Weller thought the tree would be cleaned off the window. It wasn’t. And in October, the clinic contacted her. Other pediatric patients loved the tree, and the clinic wondered whether Weller could come back and paint some more.
She had grown extremely close to the clinic staff. “I love these people,” she said. “These people were my family for eight years.” But she couldn’t go back. “I just couldn’t do it,” she said.
“It took me a long time to move away from the hospital, to move away from the memories of the hospital,” she said, “a really, really long time.”
Five months passed.
Finally, in March, she ventured back with a friend to keep her company. “I remember walking around, and I felt like I was out of breath,” she said.“It was because I was holding my breath.
“Then I went into the room,” she said. “I just had to do it. I went into the room and looked at the tree and had a good cry, and then I was fine.
“Now, every time I come in I’m more comfortable, and I feel like I have a purpose, and that I’m making kids happy,” she said. “Since I’ve been doing this, I talk about [Lauren] all the time. You can’t shut me up. And I remember all the good stuff.”
Plus, “when you have someone in your life that you love so much, that you know you’re going to lose, you learn how to live in the moment,” she said, and “you’re grateful for every minute that you have.”
Last month, before she started to paint a new tree festooned with birds, she climbed up on the sill — her toenails were painted pink with white dots — and washed the window.
She drew the outlines, and then filled in with fat sponge-tipped colored daubers.
“I think Lauren is inspiring me,” she said. “Every tree I do, it lets me let her go a little bit more, and I remember more of the happy times than the sad times. . . . She’s definitely with us.”
A few hours into the work, Mackall, chief of the pediatric oncology branch of the National Cancer Institute, stopped by. “I loved Lauren,” she said.
Weller and Mackall embraced and sighed. “It’s so good to see you,” Weller said.
They chatted, and Weller began to sob. Mackall said goodbye and left.
After the doctor left, Weller said: “She made me cry. I don’t know. I haven’t seen her.”
She went back to her painting, and began to hum.