“The thing with cancer is that you always have this amount of hope,” she says, dipping a paintbrush into a glass filled with water, “you just think you’ll get treatment and that will be that. And we had that hope right up until they told us that the treatment wasn’t working.”.
This conversation seems out of place in the colour-filled makeshift art studio, but being surrounded by paints and art is where Bathurst-born and South-coast based artist Madi Ryan feels the most like herself.
Her house is an eclectic hodge-podge of mismatched furniture, exactly what you would expect in a share house filled with twenty-something university students and recent graduates. Madi’s art studio – which doubles as the household dining room – is a paint-covered desk in the corner of the room. The coffee table is littered with paint bottles and colour-stained rags. A huge black cat sleeps in a square of sunlight that has landed on the dining table, pushed to the wall and covered in dust, a sign that no meal has been eaten there in some time.
Madi is sitting on the floor, lazily dragging a paintbrush over a wooden skateboard on which she is painting a David Bowie inspired creation set among a star-filled galaxy. It comes so effortlessly to her, she is barely paying attention to the paintbrush, but it continues to dance across the board. She muses, “you know, if tomorrow I had both arms cut off and I couldn’t draw or paint anymore, I’d probably start using my feet to do it. I don’t think I could ever do anything else.”
The daughter of an artist-turned-librarian mother and a disability worker father, Madi was destined to be a book-lover and an overwhelmingly caring person, and later found out that art was a part of her, as if paint flowed through her body in place of blood. “I know my mum was a bit of an art buff in her day, but she didn’t really pursue her art and always regretted it. It reminded her so much of her dad so she was very supportive of me doing it. Lots of other people don’t ever get that kind of support.”
Madi knew what she wanted her life to be. She’d leave Bathurst and her strict Catholic all-girls high school behind, go to university, and become a full-time artist – ultimately, she wanted to be able to finally be herself. In 2012, Madi started a Bachelor of Creative Arts in Wollongong and her parents, Noel and Trish, relocated to Mossy Point on the South Coast.
In March of her final year at University, her parents surprised her with a visit. “They said they’d just been to a doctor’s appointment but I didn’t think much of it. But then they said dad had cancer.” Madi barely looks up from her painting as she talks. The corners of her mouth start to turn up as a memory comes to her. “It wasn’t like in the movies. They just told me he had a tumor in his neck and then said ‘should we make tea?’ I think my families’ response to any sort of tragedy is just to put the kettle on.” That was her family dynamic. They worked as a unit, and any sad event was nothing that a cup of tea couldn’t fix. “Mum always makes sweet tea because the sugar helps you deal with things,” Madi explains, “and dad always had chocolate. He said it was medicinal.” The plan was simple; her dad would start treatment, Madi would finish University and everything would continue; it was business as usually for the Ryan family and no tumor was going to change that.
Madi wanted to drop out to go home and be with her dad, but he made it clear that that wasn’t an option. “Dad was always so supportive of my art and definitely didn’t want to be the reason that I stopped, especially so close to finishing.” In the end, staying ended up being the distraction that she needed or she would have just fallen apart. Her friends were the crutch that she needed to stay together and deal with the biggest challenge of her life. Gee Singh was Madi’s housemate at the time. “I remember telling her everything would be fine. I had no doubt in my mind that things would get better and it would just be a minor medical thing that was easily fixed. No one had any idea exactly how serious his condition was and we all hoped it would just go away.”
I ask her to tell me about her dad, and her eyes light up, a smile breaks out across her face and she starts talking faster than I can keep up. “He was just a cool dude. After they moved to the coast, he became this Ukulele teacher with a Hawaiian shirt collection. We would have a lot of family occasions where we would just sit and play ukuleles together.” She gestures to her left where a ukulele sits proudly on a stand. She tells me a story about how he had to celebrate his fifty-ninth birthday in hospital and the nurses (who all loved him, of course) blew up “balloons” out of gloves and wrote “happy birthday” on the whiteboard. Noel was so chuffed that he put a picture of it on his Instagram account, which he was proud he had – it made him a cool dad. “He had this moustache his entire life, and we always joked about how we’d never seen his top lip, so while he was going through Chemo, he didn’t care about anything except losing this moustache. And he didn’t lose it! It stayed there!”
In the second half of the year, the family found out that Noel’s treatment wasn’t working, and that any further treatment would just be preventing the inevitable. “She told me her dad stopped treatment and that her family had started planning his funeral.” Gee describes the night Madi told her and broke down. “I remember we drove up to the lighthouse and she just let go of all her strength and opened up about everything. How he would never get the chance to walk her down the aisle, know her children, or just be there. We sat in my car, in the middle of the night, while I held her, and we both cried. We didn’t say anything for such a long time, because, like, what words can you say at a time like that?”
Madi’s brother Luke became Noel’s full-time carer, and once she graduated, she moved home to help out as well. Madi said that watching her brother drop everything and do so much for their dad changed the way she would see him forever. “I always knew that my brother was a very caring person, but I have never respected him more than when he was dads carer. He was twenty-four and he gave up two years of his life for dad.” Her voice cracks. “I will be eternally grateful to him for that.” Her dad’s condition deteriorated quickly. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t walk and would often have falls. The cancer spread through his whole body, including his brain. He started to lose his speech and his memory. He couldn’t remember ukulele songs and then, he couldn’t play at all because he couldn’t use his fingers.
“Having to watch someone you love go through that, and know that they’re going to die…”\
She closes her eyes and doesn’t say anything for a very long time. She is trying her hardest to hold back tears.
“I have to be thankful for the time that I had with him. I was blessed to have him, some people don’t have fathers and I had the most amazing one. Just knowing him made you a better person.”
She wipes away the tears building up in her eyes, and starts painting again. This relaxes her, and her voice starts to break as she gives up on holding back her emotions. She talks about how in the end, her family just knew it was coming. Everyone was just so tired, and “in the end we were just glad that he wasn’t suffering anymore.”
One year on, things have started to fall into place for Madi and her family. Her brother is expecting a baby girl, her sister, Emma, is engaged and Madi has started her art business, and had her first art exhibition. “As cliché as it is, I believe he is making all of this happen. I just see all these little things every day and it is too much of a coincidence to not be him.” She smiles, and twists the ring on her finger – which she later tells me was given to her dad on his eighteenth birthday. She has a tattoo on her right arm; “Love you always, Dad” in his handwriting.
“I think of him everyday. A thousand times a day.”