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Tea party gives humble storyteller moments to ponder life's wonders

Tim O'Leary

Special to the Village News

Can you imagine me at a tea party? Until recently, it would have indeed been an odd sight to see.

And so I found myself being just one of two men amid nearly 20 women participating in the Impossible Dream Tea Party, a colorful event held at the amazing Fallbrook home of an award-winning artist, photographer, video producer and university teacher.

The fete featured an Alice in Wonderland theme. It was a journey of joy, beauty and the tenacity of the human spirit. It was a celebration of life organized by a nonprofit that is a welcome newcomer to our close-knit community.

A few months ago, Michelle's Place Cancer Resource Center expanded its services to the Fallbrook area. I was first acquainted with that group when I covered Temecula for another newspaper. The group recently welcomed me into their Fallbrook family.

Michelle's Place has provided more than 100,000 free resources to cancer patients and their families. It was named after Michelle Watson, who scrambled for places to turn in the Temecula area when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Michelle's parents, family and friends founded the program in 2001 to honor her memory.

Breast cancer inflicted itself on my family decades ago. My mother died of cancer at age 62 after what started as a breast lump ultimately ate her alive. Her death decimated my family, but she became a mere statistic to those beyond it.

Cancer affects nearly 2 million Americans annually. Each of us knows someone who has died, suffered or is struggling with the disease.

My daughter-in-law is a breast cancer survivor. My left breast has become swollen, but miraculously a mammogram exam and an ultrasound procedure did not detect any cancer. Fear and dread shadowed me for months until I received an upbeat diagnosis.

My first local encounter with Michelle's Place came when I attended a June 1 "lunch and learn" event at its location in the Fallbrook Regional Health District's Wellness Center. It was there that I met and was intrigued by Kira Carrillo Corser.

"It's interesting how art and imagination makes a difference in healing," she said during that gathering of 14 cancer patients, survivors, family and friends. "It's incredible."

We parted company after that two-hour event, but Kira and I agreed to reconnect later when circumstances permitted.

Kira's mother also died of breast cancer. Kira herself contracted ovarian cancer when she was 39. She survived that cancer despite overwhelming odds, only to develop bladder cancer three years ago.

She has shaken the secondary cancer as well, yet still struggles with a lasting emotional toil. She painted angels throughout her ordeal, and her home is a testimony to the power of art, affirmations and endurance.

For the past 12 years she has shared a hilltop aerie with Tyde Richards. Together they care for four cats and practice tai chi at their home and the Wellness Center. A company recently published the latest in her series of illustrated books that guide children through diseases and the fear, stress and discomfort that accompany serious illnesses.

Being an amateur artist and a plodding writer myself, I felt humbled to be in the presence of this 72-year-old woman who has a 10-page resume.

She holds a master's degree in fine arts, taught for eight years at California State University Monterey Bay and has held dozens of workshops. She was a staff photographer and photo director for KPBS television and radio. She has received dozens of grants and awards and has had art and photography showings in major museums, universities and public buildings.

Her art has seemingly been exhibited everywhere. She has been featured in an array of newspaper and magazine articles. Her photos have filled parts or all of 10 books, reports and journals. She is a mother of two and a grandmother to three.

She and Tyde hosted our tea party in which mementos were distributed and there was a prize for the best hand-crafted hat. A soft breeze drifted through the serene outdoor setting that was still damp from an overnight shower.

At one point, we participants were asked to write down and read aloud a hope that each held for their own future.

Many said "travel." One woman said her hope is to lose weight. There was a wish for a "healthy life." Another woman said she hoped to "keep my family together" amid diseases, dementia and distance.

Finally, a woman sitting near me said she hoped to someday learn the reason that God has kept her on His great, green Earth through hardship and heartache.

We all whispered "amen" to that wish.

Thank you, Kira. Thank you, Michelle's Place. Thank you, friends.


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