A Brief History of the Small Steps That Make Up a Leap

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“What would you do if you had one year to live?”

“I’d paint.”

My mouth fell open with these words.

Sam, my husband, and I had made it a practice to periodically ask each other that hypothetical question. January of 2017 was coming to a close, and we were touching base on our New Year’s resolutions so it seemed like an opportune time.

My answer shocked me. At first, I felt like it came out of nowhere. Then, a week of self-doubt, tears, and excuses followed as to why I couldn’t possibly paint. Not why I couldn’t be a painter, just why I couldn’t even paint: The set-up and clean-up time take too long. I’m too tired after work. The light isn’t bright enough after I get home.

My truth was out though, and it was patient but insistent. After I had exhausted all of my excuses, it was the only thing left.

“I’d paint.”

January 2012

Registering for my first studio course in the art school felt like a rebellion.

There had been little doubt that I’d go to college to study business. I grew up drawing, sketching, collaging, creating whenever a project called for it but nothing more. Being an artist was for other people, so I kept my art in the shadows.

I was nervous to tell my parents, but to my surprise, they were excited for me. As long as I continued to major in business, art could be a healthy avenue for expression. That sounded sensible so I registered for oil painting.

For most of the course, I was baffled. The brush felt clunky in my hand and my colors were murky. We painted still-lifes. Mine were murky gray bowls with murky brown fruit on murky tablecloths. Critiques are notorious for being harsh and running long, but whenever mine came up, there were a few measly comments and then we moved on. There wasn’t much to say.

April 2012

Our final was to paint a live model on our largest canvas yet. I was excited about the novelty but figured this was going to be a very big, murky painting.

But as the model lay there nude I saw colors on the skin that I had never before noticed. Deep blue dips and yellow curves of a knee. Forest green grooves and rose pink waves of a neck. It was like I was paying attention for the first time, and the body marveled me. I grew to understand the way oil carries color, moves, and layers upon itself. Through it, I felt a new way of seeing and living.

I wasn’t sure about what to do with this new outlook so my sensible self took charge. It tucked away my brushes and paints into a large brown paper sack when the course ended.

May 2012

After walking back from dinner, Sam opened his apartment door. I walked in and saw an easel.

There’s an easel in the room? Why is there an easel in the room? I’m utterly confused.

Sam’s voice answers, “Happy Birthday.”

I’m utterly silent.

Trying to fill the void, he continues, “This way, you can keep painting. I carved your initials into the top. I hope you like it.”

I loved it.

I painted every day for a week before I went back home to Massachusetts. I was in flow and the happiest I had ever been but didn’t dare jump to the conclusion that I could be an artist. Besides, I had an internship with a business startup that summer. It was going to get me one step closer to figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. My sensible self kept my easel and Sam’s belief in me in St. Louis, and I left for that internship.

October 2013

Stage 4b, t-cell rich, large b-cell lymphoma.

That’s the type of cancer Sam had. There isn’t a stage after that, and he was twenty-three years old.

Sam was barely a year out of college, and I was starting my junior year. We were both experimenting with what our futures could look like. He had just started a video game studio with his brother, and I had formally picked up art as a minor. Painting after painting hung on his apartment walls. Only a week earlier, I was sketching Sam's shoulders and getting used to charcoal for the first time. Propped open was my drawing anatomy book as I was trying to figure out the different cords of muscle beneath his skin. I didn’t know bulging against his teres major was a fist-sized tumor.

Cancer was something that happened to other people. To some extent, we considered our time infinite and our existence indestructible. And then cancer happened to us.

And yet, we were lucky. We both have loving, supportive families that provided comfort and financial help. Sam’s family of medical professionals knew when to probe for unasked answers and demystify medical jargon. We went to school and live in a city with a renowned hospital and cancer center. The Affordable Care Act was in place so we felt relieved that at least this cancer in his 20's wouldn’t mark him with a pre-existing condition and a lifetime of medical expenses.

When Sam told me I didn’t have to go through this cancer with him, that he’d understand if I left, I looked at him silly. This wasn’t unfair, this was just life, and I wasn’t going to run away from it.

We met that first round of cancer with vigorous optimism and determination. We readied ourselves for an epic onslaught of chemotherapy and biopsies by cutting away the bullshit and found a permeating happiness in living our lives to the fullest. We started asking ourselves “What would you do if you had one year to live?” and lived that way. At that time, we asked it out of honesty, not hypothetical curiosity.

After almost a year, the treatments seemed to work. We vowed to not forget what cancer had taught us and continued to ask each other that hypothetical question to keep ourselves honest.

January 2015

Just over a year later, Sam relapsed.

And that’s when I realized the only certainty in life is its unpredictability. We thought he had beaten cancer. That his story was one of triumph. That we were going to celebrate our wedding next year. That life was going to continue.

That we had sucked out all of the life-changing lessons from cancer and left the rest to die.

But it wasn’t dead. The cancer was back.

This time, the unpredictability numbed me. I had just graduated a semester early and was starting my first job as Sam was starting his first round of salvage chemotherapy. My friends were kicking off their last semester of college, and I was struggling to stay connected. I tried to sound uplifting whenever I talked about the reality, but all I could feel was doom. I wasn't running away from life, but I had stopped living it fully.

“What would you do if you had one year to live?”

Survive. I just wanted us to get there.

January 2016

And we did get there. Sam survived a year of more chemotherapy, radiation, and two stem-cell transplants. But this second round of cancer had stripped us of confidence for the future. We made earnest, almost desperate, attempts to move past survival mode. Sam poured himself into their latest video game, and their studio was on the rise. I quit my job to start an organization to connect people to St. Louis. Focusing on the futures of other people and the city gave me some semblance of my own.

April 2016

We moved into our first home after a year of house-hunting, which had started shortly after Sam relapsed. We would look at a bunch of homes online, and then I’d walk through them with Sam’s parents and our realtor before bringing back my thoughts to his bedside in the hospital. A house gave us a sense of permanence like we were going to be here for a while. Like we were going to make it to the future.

May 2016

During a visit up to Iowa, we watched a mini-series called The Impressionists with Sam’s dads. It had been over a year since I had made any art, and the show gave me a jolt of life. For my birthday, Sam bought me my second easel, a portable one, just like the ones we saw in the mini-series. I took out my pastels and finished a botanical drawing and a portrait of Sam, but then I stopped. I never opened up my oil paints. I packed my portable easel away. I was afraid of asking for too much from life.

June 2016

Sam left for a week-long whitewater kayaking trip with First Descents, an organization for cancer survivors to get outside and learn a new hardcore sport. As Sam describes it, the program is designed to help re-fashion your identity into something powerful again after going through all the cancerous hullaballoo. He had gone to Mt. Hood, Oregon and came back glistening.

He recounted the whole week to me, the people he bonded with, the feeling on the water. And then he told me about his last ride down the river and his first time capsizing. In Sam’s own words, “That part of me that was stolen away in the hospital, that lens of charm, the ever smiling self that cracked jokes when the world was upside down…I found it. I found it at the bottom of a river, under a seven-foot wave, thousands of miles from where I lost it. I found that piece of myself and I locked it back into place.”

I remember feeling in awe. He was back. He was back and more alive than ever. And I desperately wanted to meet him there.

October 2016

In October, Sam and I celebrated our wedding before escaping to the Smoky Mountains, and I knew I was marrying someone who lived life the way I wanted to live. He believed in me, but I didn’t know if I felt the same way about myself. In fact, I know I didn’t.

November 2016

One month later, and I didn’t know how to feel. The night of November 8th felt like the twilight zone. I woke up the next morning panicked for what this would mean for so many people. Then the implications started to crystallize around the shock. We hadn’t dealt with cancer in a world without the Affordable Care Act, but all of a sudden, that felt like a reality. I urged Sam to think about our Plan B, C, D, and E and to put them in motion. He tried reassuring me that we could make things work, but I wasn’t having it. I was back in survival mode.

December 2016

While thinking through how to figure out health insurance with both Sam and I working on startups, my friend asked if I wanted to work at his organization. Their mission aligned with my focus on St. Louis, and I admired their leadership. My background matched their needs, and Sam and I would have health insurance. We scheduled interviews for the next couple of weeks, and I loved the team. I accepted the position at the end of the month.

Sam didn’t want me to take the job just for healthcare, but he saw it gave me a sense of security and my daily panic attacks had eased. Another friend had also asked if I could make a piece of wall art for her mom so I was at my easel again. Seeing an opening, Sam nominated me for the First Descents program for caregivers, FDrock. Unsure about the trip, I filled out my part of the application on the last day I could.

January 2017

Be more rigorous with the things I'm most afraid of succeeding in.

That was my New Year’s resolution.

At the time, I was days away from starting my new job but that wasn’t what I was afraid of. I was afraid of the life I could have if I moved past survival and into creation.

At work, I saw how others were choosing to live the life they wanted. I was reminded of that on the daily and realized I had the power to do the same.

“I’d paint.”

February 2017

New email, subject line: 2017 FDrock Nomination Acceptance.

The very next day, I had a meeting with my boss, who happened to be my friend that got me the job. I told him I was going to be a painter, and he asked how much longer the organization had me for.

Crap, he took me seriously!

“By the end of May.”

By the end of May??!

Yes, because by May 21st, I’ll be on my way back to the Smoky Mountains to go whitewater kayaking. My two annual projects at work would wrap up just before then, and I had started the Artist’s Way, a twelve-week guide for helping people unblock their artist self. I didn’t know this at the time, but week number twelve would be the week leading up to May 21st.


It's my last day at work. In two days, it’ll be May 21st.

At the beginning of the week, I felt the need to write out this brief history of how I got here to remind myself that this didn't come out of nowhere. I had been moving in this direction all along. Paying tribute to those seemingly insignificant moments and decisions gave me the clarity and confidence I needed for today. It takes a lot of small steps to get to what looks like a leap.

“What would you do if you had one year to live?”

I'd do nothing different.



All my thanks and love the people in my life, strangers included, who made me feel like I could do this.

Thank you to Jenn Korman of Jennifer Korman Photography for being an inspiring friend and jumping at the chance to take photos right when I was feeling doubtful of putting together a website.


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Diana Zeng4 Comments