'The only pity is that wisdom and beauty are coming so late'
Artist Katarzyna Gajewska went through years of pain and difficulty following the birth of her son. Her new exhibition shows how suffering has changed her, sometimes in surprising ways
When artist Katarzyna Gajewska was pregnant with her son, Antoni, her first child, she was living in Dublin, married to an Irishman, but decided she wanted to go home to Warsaw for the birth and have an elective Caesarean in a private clinic there. "Because it was my first pregnancy, and I felt paranoid and worried," she says when I ask why. "But everyone said 'why? You're young, healthy, you don't need to do this'. Eventually I stepped back; I softened, I thought, 'OK, the hospital here is good...' But I had a feeling something would happen. Now, I try to follow my intuition."
It's the sort of thing people are always saying, and of course, they mean it. But few, I suspect, mean it as much as Kat. Because behind that slightly trite phrase, the story she tells me - that began with her trip to a Dublin maternity hospital to give birth - is such a relentless catalogue of horror, with so many terrible twists, so much pain and misery, so much loneliness, that parts of it will never end, and other parts have left considerable scars, physical and psychological.
It is astonishing that she is sitting here today, obviously frail still - by the end of our time together, her voice is fading and she has begun to slide down in her chair, sheer exhaustion claiming her - but determined; on the cusp of her second solo show at the Origin Gallery. These two shows come seven years, and what must feel like a lifetime, apart. They represent, I hope, a kind of full circle in Kat's life, the closing of one, terrible chapter, and the beginning of something new and better.
Kat went into hospital when she was 40 weeks' pregnant, in April 2011, feeling very unwell. She had what she now believes were the early signs of eclampsia, pregnancy poisoning, basically - headaches, blurred vision, high blood pressure. Although the baby's head wasn't engaged, labour was induced. Contractions were painful but there was no progression. After many hours, an emergency C-section was performed. Kat remembers, through the waves of pain and black-outs, looking up and seeing the doctor "holding my intestines in both hands and looking around. Blood was everywhere". Finally, Antoni was born, by which time Kat had lost almost 1.5 litres of blood. When she fainted on day four after delivery she was given a blood transfusion. The next day, she was discharged.
And so began a nightmare. Five years and seven operations, beginning with the removal of a kidney, a year after the C-section, because it was hopelessly damaged. That followed a long period of time in which her complaints were dismissed by the various doctors she came into contact with. "I kept going to different doctors, and until I collapsed, a year after delivery, they all said I was fine. Then, it was revealed that my kidney was completely damaged, I had just 5pc of function. Until then, everyone tended to ignore my pleas - almost like I said something offensive, almost like I farted in a lovely place. I had the impression I offended everyone by saying I wasn't feeling well. I felt almost pushed to pretend. One doctor patted me on the shoulder and said 'maybe you should eat more'. That's the way young women are treated sometimes."
Did she ever believe the doctors - believe that this was in her head, a psychological problem, not a physical one? "There were thoughts and an inner battle," she admits. "I thought, 'Jesus, how mentally ill I must be, to have this kind of physical manifestation!' It was awful for me that they kept going like that. But I had to believe that it was not in my head, that it was real, because if I had agreed with the doctors - and even some friends of mine who said, 'oh cheer up, it's all in your head, smile' - I could be dead ages ago. It's very difficult to argue with everyone," she says wearily. "Even people close to me would say - 'you just complain and complain'. So I grew tired of discussing it, and I would just say, 'fine, believe what you want to believe, I know what's happening'."
During this time, Kat moved back to Warsaw with Antoni. Antoni's father stayed in Ireland, although he continued to be a support and presence in their lives. "It was almost Kafka-esque," she says of that time. "It was surreal. No one believed me in Ireland, so I went to Warsaw. It was incredibly difficult to look after my son. There were days I felt so sick, I left the front door open, so that in case something happened to me, my neighbours would be able to come and find Antoni. I reached a stage when I had to call my younger brother any time I was going out, because I was fainting, passing out. Only then did they do the right kind of investigation."
That investigation resulted in the operation to remove her kidney, which couldn't be saved, and that, in turn, led to the collapse of her right lung. A year later, Kat needed more surgery, to remove the upper lobe of the lung, and then, a year after that, the removal of yet more of the lung. It was the nightmare that would not end, with relentless emergency trips to hospital. Through it all, she struggled to paint, and to care for Antoni. "I was always designing his childhood," she says with a smile. "I always had a little kid in my head since I was young. I was trying for kids. Before, I was in a long relationship and we were trying for a long time but to no avail, and then, with Antoni's father, it happened, and I was so happy, I was over the moon. I felt it was right.
"Antoni was in my head, from the time I was young. That's what I was so upset about - that they took away something that was so simple, like going to the park. That we were stuck at home because it would have been dangerous to go out on my own, because I could pass out, and then he would be in the company of strangers. I didn't want to put him into that situation. His life was also very difficult, because mine was. I tried to make it natural for him - he would come to the emergency rooms with me, we would sit and wait together, and we had our little things going on: reading, a world of imagination. I don't know if he noticed that his childhood differed from his peers, but it was difficult. I never showed to him that I was stressing out," she says. "I never cried in front of him. I did it under the shower when he was asleep. I had moments when I was really yelling, like an animal - 'no, I don't want to die'. I had moments when I felt angry, but inside, because you don't show emotions like that. I felt angry at people who moan and moan at nothing, at people who raise their voice at their children - I would think, 'appreciate what you have!'"
What kept her going? "A basic survival instinct," she almost shrugs, too well aware that there were no other options. "I had to do it. I could have had a breakdown and collapsed into a million pieces, but I didn't want to lose the game, for Antoni. I dreamt of him all my life. I knew there would be a lot of people to take care of him - his dad, who loves him. But I doubt anyone would give him so much attention and love as I would. One glance at him and I felt, I have to do it. That, and my painting."
In all the litany of the terrible things that happened and were done to her, Kat is remarkably matter-of-fact - not bitter, or angry, although she does say, in response to my asking how she feels. "If you had asked me that question three years ago, I would have said that I am full of a lot of grief, jealousy, which I felt towards other people for whom it was just easy - they kept going, they kept living their life, and I was stuck. I felt I was punished. But you can't go on like that, feeling this way." In fact, the things that move her to tears as we talk are not the indifference and ignorance she encountered, but Antoni, all that he suffered because of her suffering, and the extraordinary kindness of one French doctor.
The removal of most of her right lung was far from the end of Kat's trouble. During the summer of 2015, she was again rushed to hospital, and this time diagnosed with a large endometrial tumour in the left abdomen, that criss-crossed different body parts, including the colon, uterus, anus and iliac artery. Surgery was necessary, but extremely difficult because of the size and position of the tumour. Kat was told by doctors in Poland and in Ireland that she would most likely end up with a permanent colostomy bag, that she risked losing her left leg because of the artery involved, and that a hysterectomy was indicated, although she did not want one. "I didn't want this to happen if it could be avoided, but one consultant put his face just centimetres from mine and said, 'you must be an idiot to want minimal surgery'."
In the meantime, Kat was taking medication that included very high doses of hormones, to keep the tumour in check, and there was some suggestion that she forego surgery and simply continue with this. "Even though that was risky too - the drugs weren't tested for more than six months - but they said 'at least we know you will be alive for a few years. The mortality rate for the surgery is high. You might get a brain cancer from the drugs, but you won't risk death on the operating table'."
At this point, Kat chose to break away from the dispiriting round of doctors and hospitals she had known to that point - "you go into hospital feeling, 'OK, I'm going to be diminished, they will speak to me in a certain manner, I have to behave in a certain manner'" - and, at last, follow her intuition. She began her own research into surgeons around the world who could perform the operation as she wanted it, and wrote to them. "I sent my queries all over the world, and I got three responses - two Austrian doctors, and one French professor. When I read his email, I knew - that's him. He was so full of respect. Suddenly, I felt safe. He said, 'your situation is difficult but not desperate, and I can help you'."
Those were the words Kat had waited years to hear. Although she was terrified - "I had moments of panic and black visions. I wondered was I doing the right thing, was better to stay on very strong hormonal treatment? I wondered would these be my last moments? How to secure Antoni's future?" - she resolved to go ahead, raising the money she needed through a crowd-funding campaign. "It took less than a week to raise the money," she says, clearly astonished. "I had no idea - I felt, 'I'm such a loner, without friends'. But then all my friends from school, from university, all my Irish friends, came together."
The operation was in Strasbourg, last September, and ended by being three operations because of yet more complications, but this time Kat had by her side someone who cared, to whom she meant something. "We met for the first time after surgery. The professor came when I was still a bit blurry from the anaesthetic, still a bit funny in my head, and he said, 'finally, here we are'. I was so happy to be alive. He held my hand and said 'your life matters to me'. And I couldn't believe it. When I have bad moments, I try to recollect that. I started to believe in humanity again.
"After the first surgery, he was supposed to go to Dubai, but the day after the surgery I had a high fever and I was in incredible pain, nothing was helping. He came and sat on my bed, held my hand and said he had cancelled his departure. I said, 'I'm so sorry, why did you do that', and he said, 'because you are my patient, I am your doctor, that's why'. Every time I feel lonely or - we all feel like shit sometimes - I remember his hand..." She breaks off, choked with the kind of tears that cruelty or indifference cannot make us shed, only kindness.
And now? "I have moments when I am feeling really bad physically - and then the fear comes, that I will be in danger again, there will be more ambulances, but it passes quickly. I have my little methods of bringing myself back. Listening to Nick Cave songs, having a laugh with Antoni." Even so, she does not plan ahead. "I don't think about five years' time. Only next week. It's a good system. I don't want any disappointments - if I cling to the thought, 'I want to move there', or have big plans for my future - do my PhD, paint this, paint that, have three children - there is terrible disappointment. I don't want that any more. So I live in the present - today, maybe next Sunday, no further."
There are still bad moments, "but now, when I feel good physically, I tend to forget. I don't dwell on this. It happened, and that's it. To me, it would be like a movie I saw. The bad moments in the past don't stick. They don't put a shadow on what I do, how I think, how I behave. Life should be a pleasure. I know there are people who like to talk about bad moments, dwell on them, play the victim. I'm not like that. If I have even five minutes where I feel fantastic, I want to dance in those five minutes. I love going to my studio, I feel fantastic there, because I feel, 'this is the old me'."
It is astonishing the extent to which Kat was able to care for Antoni, to protect him from the misery around her, to safeguard his childhood. It is also astonishing how much work she managed to do in that time. "Whenever I could physically do it, I was going to the studio," she says. "When I had money and could afford it, I would get a nanny for a couple of hours and paint. Before my lung surgeries, I felt really poisoned, physically, and would pass out in my studio, but I had to do it, because that kept me sane."
Back when Kat was living in Ireland, before Antoni was born, she enjoyed spending time at the Cill Rialaig artists' retreat, and this is where she returned a month before her operation in Strasbourg. "I was in Dublin, and I went to the Origin Gallery and Noelle Campbell-Sharp invited me to Cill Rialaig again. I went to the cottage, that place of solitude. Last time I was there, seven years ago, I was a naive young girl. I was taking things for granted. This time, everything was so different - I felt like the Polish Pope, kissing the ground when he descended from the plane. I thought, 'wow, I am alive again'. Because I didn't feel it until then."
Years before that, the night before a lung operation, Kat had made Antoni's father promise that, should she die, he would take her ashes to Kerry and scatter them. "I wanted to feel free," she says now. "I felt so stuck in my life in Warsaw - my life was hospitals and my apartment. I wanted freedom."
In Cill Rialaig, she spent a week painting. "Noelle said, 'I like the work you've done here, how about an exhibition?' And I said, 'yes. Let's see if I survive the surgery in France'." And so here she is, surrounded by work that tells the story of who she is, and what she has lived. "I feel like I have come back," she says. "It's like a forgiveness. Noelle and Cill Rialaig have given me my freedom and dignity back."
She is, she freely admits, "a completely different person now. I have lost my innocence and trust but this has been replaced with great distance and new abilities. Each moment is more real and intense now. The world has never seemed to be as desired as it is now. Thinking of its pleasures and beauty was the best method and fuel to keep going. We cannot wait to be taken by misery and death. We have to jump straight into open mouth of what is happening. The only pity is that wisdom and beauty are coming so late."
C'est La Vie by Katarzyna Gajewska is at the Origin Gallery, February 22 to March 14
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