A small bee sits on a bouquet of cheerful red paper flowers that soon will brighten the room of a patient undergoing cancer treatments at the MGH. While it may look like a simple design element by floral arrangement artist Amanda Baudanza, its meaning is deeply personal, as it honors her late husband TJ Baudanza.
“With its large body and small wings, traditional wisdom says a bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly,” Amanda says. “But the bumblebee doesn’t know that, so it just flies anyway. TJ thought like that. He would say, ‘I have cancer, but it doesn’t matter what I’m going through – I’m going to beat it.”
Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011, TJ battled the disease for four years. It was during one of his hospitalizations that Amanda first created a paper flower display – the only type of bedside flower allowed in the room due to his compromised immune system. After his death at age 32 in 2015, Amanda turned her crafting hobby into a business with the launch of AJBees. She donates 10 percent of proceeds to the MGH to benefit cancer research in her husband’s memory.
A kindred spirit
Clad in a purple Polo shirt dotted with paint and clutching a brush in his left hand, Jonathan Zuker swirls bright colors onto a square canvas. Sunlight pours in the floor-to-ceiling windows on Yawkey 7 where Jonathan’s finished paintings are on display, showcasing iconic New England images. Patients pause to admire his work and the artist engages them in conversation, handing them a signed coaster featuring his art.
A patient walks by and Jonathan greets the woman by name and a warm hug. “We call him the pied painter,” she says. “He really uplifts the spirits. It’s always a joy to see him here.”
Jonathan sets up his easel on Yawkey 7 every Wednesday and 15 of his paintings are on display at Mass General/North Shore Center for Outpatient Care. Like Amanda, his road to creativity stems from a loved one undergoing cancer treatments at the MGH. For Jonathan, it was his father Michael who died four months after being diagnosed with late stage lung cancer 15 years ago.
“When my dad was diagnosed, I was going to architecture school. Once, when I brought him in to treatment, he turned to me and said, ‘The only thing you need is to stay positive.’ During his appointments, I started bringing paints and watercolors and I’d just doodle and people in the waiting room responded to it. I would hang the paintings in his room and I think it really brought us even closer together. He had four months of the most compassionate care – there are no words to say what that meant to us.”
Soon after his death, Jonathan, his mother, Susan, and his brother Matthew started the Conquer Cancer Coalition, a non-profit organization that has raised more than $1 million to help fund programs related to cancer throughout Massachusetts.
“People turn the corner and they are met with something so colorful and so happy that it makes them happy, and walking by brings back memories of something other than cancer,” says Susan Zuker, who is an active presence during her son’s Wednesday visits. “We go home thinking how lucky we are. It’s a kindness people don’t expect and that we are so happy to give. Jonathan’s got a heart of gold – his dad would be so proud.”
A chance meeting
Last August, Amanda met Jonathan and his mother at a cancer fundraiser. They immediately bonded, forming a friendship they all agree is one that is more like family. When Jonathan learned about Amanda’s artistic talents and her dedication and support of the MGH, he knew the Conquer Cancer organization could help bring more of her creations to patients who could use a boost.
The organization purchases and donates four bouquets a month to the MGH Caring for a Cure group – founded by the nurses of the Adult Hematology/Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant Program – who work to ease the journey and uplift the spirits of their patients.
“We have collected so many inspiring people along our journey, and we were so happy to meet Amanda as we both enjoy adding some color to the hospital,” says Jonathan. “TJ lives on in everything that Amanda does and everything we do. His attitude was that nothing’s going to stop me – and that’s continued whether he is here or not. With my dad, and with TJ, we want to let their voices carry forward in a positive way and make a difference for others. I want the people who are experiencing what we did to also have a positive memory and we help by having that memory be colorful paper flowers.”
“And art,” Amanda adds.
Jonathan smiles. “Beautiful art. That’s what we wanted to leave them with.”