The Salk Institute: A Love Story

“You look nice, did you dress up for the Salk Institute?”  My husband warmly teases me as we wait for the hotel elevator.  I sheepishly grin because he is right.  I have had a love affair with the Salk Institute for almost my entire adult life. This morning I have prepared myself like I would have for a blind date. I have the same nervous energy you get when you are about to meet someone in person that you have only seen in photographs.

The fear that they wont live up to your expectations.  The fear that you wont live up to their expectations.  To mark this momentous occasion I have put on a new dress and tied up my hair.  This is a big move for me.  Over the past two years I have become a women that seeks comfort. A woman in comfortable clothes.  My personal style is made up of elastic waste bands, sweat shirts, glasses and no makeup.

This day is different.   I have dreamt of this day for most of my adult life. The day I will get to experience in person, the building that pioneered my love affair with architecture.  The building whose photographs have on occasion coated my arms in goose bumps. No building has ever had that effect on me.

The Salk Institute is a short, steep and meandering drive along the California coast from our hotel.  I sit quietly as Ian manoeuvres the rental car up the winding road.  I try my best to contain the gauntlet of feelings I’m having.  This moment is complex and cannot be scaled.  This day is wrapped in love.

It is a gift from my husband.  My husband who has patiently listened to my excited chatter through the many documentaries we have watched of this building.  My husband who has been kind enough to feign interest when I pour myself into books and tell him all about the subtle grace that exists in the details of this building. My husband who has bunkered down in the trenches of my cancer journey.  Although I don’t completely buy into cancer war metaphors, I often feel like cancer has put us in the trenches.

My husband, who will one day be burdened by the loss of his wife and the mother of his children, has been been putting significant energy and resources to support me in living my life condensed.  To pack a life time into a few years. As such there are threads of this adventure that reference my mortality. Weeks ago, I was terrified that my scan would show new metastasis and my quality of life would be enveloped in the forced march of my cancer treatment.

My husband has direct experienced in what that means.  The days in bed, transform me into a vessel that remotely references who I am.  I am afraid of returning that place.  Of loosing myself and my spirit again.  Ian hasn’t voiced it but he is also afraid. The daunting knowledge that this may be the last time I am ‘healthy’ has driven him to organize this trip.  A trip that will reunite me with the foundations that built my love of architecture.  This gift from him, touches my soul and makes me vulnerable in a way I can’t put words to.

As we drive alongside the cluster of concrete building that make up the Salk Institute I nervously look away. I have played this event over in my head for so long that I’m terrified it may disappoint.  So many buildings do.  Its rare that something that looks amazing in photographs transcends them in real life.  Photographs edit spaces.  They remove unwanted views and details.  Beautiful architecture has to be experienced.  It has to be inhabited and explored in three dimensions.  This is the architecture of my ambition.  Architecture built for the human being rather than for the pages of a magazine.

I quietly stand with Ian and a group of people waiting for the architectural tour guide. I am surprised when a enthusiastic young scientist my age joins our group.  She begins to draw a picture of the Salk Institute from the perspective of the people who work there. To be honest, until this point my understanding has been naively focused on the architecture.  The industry of the people who inhabit the space I have only vaguely defined as science.  I have ignorantly assumed their work has only a distant connection to me and the journey I am on.

I look up as she says “Here at the Salk Institute we are building the groundwork for cures to diseases”. Her body is animated with the passion she has for her work. She continues, “A cure for diseases like autism, alzheimer’s and breast cancer”. I quickly adjust my sunglasses and advert my face to conceal my tears.  My attempts to regain composure fall apart when she uses the word collaboration.   This building that I have loved for most of my adult life has been designed to promote scientific collaboration.  It is a place that hosts a collective of great minds whose body of research may cure the disease that is killing me.

I turn to Ian and adamantly tell him,  “You have to promise me to take my children here.”  He looks at me concerned, “We can do that Anna.  We can take our children here together.”  I look deep into his eyes “No Ian.” I pause to collect my word.  Tears begin to fall again.  “You have to bring them here when they are older.  I want you to tell them about this moment. Explain to them what this building means to me.”  With that I realize how important it is to me that later in life, when I’m gone, they can connect with me here, in this place.  I want to my children to be part of this profound moment.  I want them to see it as it is rendered in this part of my journey.  I want them to see it coloured by my dreams, my hopes and my story.

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8 replies »

  1. i came across your blog. I am a nurse. I work with home care. I phone people with cancer. I set up their appointments.” How are you today? “I ask.
    “Not bad “is the usual response.
    Thank you for sharing.
    i have a great deal of difficulty understanding breast cancer metaphors too.
    But i do rejoice quality of life and supportive networks around one’s soul and spirit.
    I wish you many, many happy moments.

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