Paula was involved in the planning of her own memorial service. A painted self-portrait was displayed as John Lennon’s Imagine album played throughout the visitation.
A self-portrait by Paula Bennemeer. Acrylic on canvas, 2004
John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” Paula Bennemeer, 22 years old, was trying to figure out what to do with her life after university when doctors told her they discovered tumours on her ovaries.
Oncologists were baffled that a woman so young could have such a highly aggressive type of ovarian cancer. 18 years ago, on April 7, 2005, Paula died peacefully surrounded by family at home.
Paula was a student of mine in a drawing course I taught at Wilfrid Laurier University. She was also the first subject I wrote about when I was given the opportunity to write a newspaper column for the Waterloo Chronicle, 17 years ago this month.
As I reflect, I’m reminded of Paula’s enthusiasm for the visual arts, as she would often arrive an hour early for class. Alone in the studio, she worked diligently while listening to the music of John Lennon. She was often the last to leave.
This commitment to my course gave us many opportunities to talk. We discussed music, her favourite bands, books and films. In the blog she started in 2002, she wrote that my class was her favourite.
It was while completing her double major in Sociology and Fine Arts that Paula realized there was something wrong. In an entry dated Dec. 16, 2003, she wrote: “As of today, my life at the age of 22 reached a complete turning point. I have ovarian cancer.”
From that point on, Paula used her blog to keep friends and supporters informed on the status of her health, providing us with up-to-date news of her surgeries, her treatments, her hopes and fears.
In early entries, she examined her spiritual beliefs about death and dying. As time moved along, she shared her stories of exhausting chemotherapy and feelings of anxiety and frustration over her loss of independence. And in late 2004, she stopped writing her blog altogether, becoming increasingly aware of difficult truths and the grave reality of the situation.
I was fortunate to speak with Paula on the phone shortly before her passing, and what astounded me most about the conversation was her unwavering enthusiasm while discussing art and music, despite her strained breathing and diminished voice.
On that day, her desire to hear about my art classes and current projects were as genuine as when she was a healthy student with her whole life ahead of her.
She was involved in the planning of her own memorial service. A painted self-portrait was displayed as John Lennon’s Imagine album played throughout the visitation.
Paula’s death, which I struggled with, made me think about how most people live their lives as if they’re invincible. We tend to fool ourselves into believing we are in absolute control of our time here. A diagnosis of cancer or other life-threatening disease shatters these assumptions.
On the upcoming 18-year anniversary of Paula’s death, I’m reminded of how deeply enriched I am to have known her — and how proud I remain to have been her teacher.