Purvi Shah lost one of her children to cancer. But today, she shares with us insights about happiness.
Her story is sad. There is no covering up the tragedy that is a child dying. You can’t positive think your way out of that.
Purvi, instead, coped. And she turned her coping and her care giving into something bigger than herself, and bigger even than her child.
In 2008, Purvi founded Kids & Art, an organization that pairs pediatric cancer patients with artists so that they can create art. That’s it. The organization doesn’t advance research or work towards a cure; it serves to help children find moments of happiness in the midst of their illness.
And that is everything.
I met Purvi and learned about Kids & Art when I attended BlogHer PRO last fall. I wanted to share her work, and I thought she might have some heroic words of wisdom to share about finding happiness amidst her grief.
I forgot that parents who lose children are not transformed into heroes or sages.
Despite my ignorance, Purvi graciously agreed to share her story with me. She agreed to talk about happiness, and I sent her the standard email with my interview questions.
It took more than two months for her to respond, and her answers humbled me. She admitted that the questions had taken her somewhere she needed to go but had been avoiding. She closed her email to me with this note:
“I’m finally in a place where I’m ready to stop running away and start facing grief with an open heart.”
I hope you’ll take a few minutes to honor her vulnerability, courage, and generosity of spirit with your time and attention.
I’ve done some light editing to Purvi’s answers for clarity.
What makes you happy?
Watching the kids, families, and artists lose themselves at our workshops. Seeing the final artwork and their proud smiles. Most of these kids don’t get to finish what they start. The treatment gets in their way. So a finished piece of art is a huge accomplishment.
How and when did you figure that out?
The first art workshop we had at Pixar Studios, my then 5 year old son Amaey was undergoing cancer treatment. He was paired with an artist to work on his piece. The two of them settled with a fairly big canvas on the floor. As I was trying to stay away so that I wouldn’t influence the process, I heard the artist ask Amaey if he knew what he wanted to paint and Amaey goes, “I don’t know” and in a typical 5 year old behavior, gets up and walks around.
Then the artist asked him, “hey Amaey, what did you eat for breakfast today?” Amaey runs back to him with a big smile and huge eyes, “waffle, a really big waffle, some orange juice, and strawberries”. Artist says, “should we paint that?” Before he could get an answer, Amaey was already drawing on the canvas, a really really big waffle.
Watching him and the artist there, in that room, was a moment I will never forget because Amaey was going through his dexamethasone phase. That medicine made him cranky, emotional, and almost PMS. He would have specific cravings for food and he would need it right then and he would eat all the time, even at 4am in the morning. Amaey had to have that medicine for 5 days at a stretch and we called it the 5 day challenge. He did not like the 5 day challenge.
But right there in the art room at Pixar, Amaey was not thinking about his 5 day challenge. Instead, the artist had channeled something else and together they created a beautiful work of art. We bought that piece at our finale auction, and now it sits center stage on our kitchen wall.
Once you discovered what makes you happy, how did you incorporate that into your life more?
This journey of incorporating what makes me happy took a long time.
I founded Kids & Art in 2008 because I saw that art did make a difference in our cancer family’s life. However, in 2011 my son lost his battle against cancer at the age of 9, after being in treatment for 6 years. I could not get myself to do anything, let alone go back to Kids & Art.
It took a lot of soul searching and a request from my older son Arjun. He said that Kids & Art was important to him as a sibling. He felt that he made a difference by doing art and then having his art sold at an auction and raising funds for the program. He said that if Amaey were here he would have wanted me to continue with Kids & Art. So after a lot of talking with myself and consideration I did start Kids & Art back in October 2013.
Are there any “shoulds” you’ve had to let go of in order to pursue your happiness?
Yes. I was a Creative Director at a media company when we found out about my son’s diagnosis. Our insurance was through my husbands company so I, without even a moments thought and hesitation, quit my job that I loved so much. This was the first shoulds in a series of many that I let go in pursuit of happiness.
However, we human beings take very long to realize that. The reason I say this is, while my son was undergoing treatment, my husband was at work, my older son at school, I was doing the hospital rounds, going through all the ups and downs of the treatment with Amaey. I kept thinking about how I had to give up everything, how I had no ambition, and how hard it was to sit and draw or even take on any freelance projects.
But, when my son was few weeks away from being cancer free, he relapsed. Our world came crumbling down, yet again. I looked at him one day, wearing a huge smile on his face as he was being harnessed into a radiation suit and instructed to stand in a radiation booth, without moving. I was asked to leave the room but I insisted that I keep watching him from the TV monitor and keep talking to him and singing to him via the in-treatment room microphone. Each time he heard my voice, he would light up and stand straight.
At that very moment something happened to me and I will never forget this moment. I was thankful for being a fulltime caregiver. I told myself that if this is my destiny, to take care of him, I will do it the best I can. I was happy in moments of great sadness over watching my son in radiation therapy. I was happy that I gave myself permission to be present and there for him and for myself.
Thank you, Purvi Shah, for sharing this part of your journey. You can find out more about Kids and Art on their website.
If you enjoyed this interview, visit the rest of our interviews with happy people.