Susan Merrill celebrates life, her work after cancer diagnosis

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STOCKBRIDGE — Susan Merrill and her husband, Carl Sprague, are sitting under the grape vines on the terrace outside their old white house, with two corgis underfoot.

Susan's grandfather lived in this house; it has been in the family almost 100 years. They have spent this summer quietly here, seeing friends and family, plays and concerts while Susan prepares for two art shows and Carl works on on a screenplay for Edith Wharton's "Summer." But it has not been an ordinary summer.

In May, Susan was given three months to live.

She came to Baystate Hospital with a small cyst on the language center of the brain.

"At the biopsy I was relieved I could talk, in an awkward way," she said, "so I was happy until the doctor told us lab results: the worst, the fast-growing, incurable results."

"She's already a bit of a miracle," Sprague said. "When this came up in May, we were told we could expect three months, and here it is August. She has the same thing Sen. [John] McCain has [glioblastoma] ... If you choose radiation and chemo, it could add six months or a year. Susan took a look and thought — what's the point of making your life hell for what would be a short time?"

She told the story at home with Carl beside her, and also by email, because the illness has affected her speech. Words sound fine in her head, they both explained, but when she speaks or writes, what comes out is another story.

But beyond that difficulty, she has spent these months full of activity.

"It has been lovely having to be home this summer," said Carl, a production designer, art director, concept illustrator who has worked on films such as "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Twelve Years a Slave." "Normally, I don't get to do that."

They have gone to Tanglewood, Barrington Stage and the Colonial Theatre. They have seen the summer shows at the Clark Art Institute and want to see Berkshire Theatre Group's "Arsenic and Old Lace."

"We've been visiting with people," Carl said, "and concentrating on getting her work out there and letting people see it."

Susan has been painting and looking through her paintings from more than 50 years of work. In the fall, her work will open a new gallery space at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, when renovations there are finished. She has created a series of paintings of beneficial bugs and insects — monarch butterflies, even a nematode — "various kinds," she said, "so camouflaged, so elegant and beautiful."

And on Friday, she opened a show at the Hotel on North at First Fridays with paintings from her annual exhibits as part of the Baby Animals celebration at Hancock Shaker Village over the last 10 years. She is calling it "Respect for the Cow," she said, and she thinks of it informally as the Cow Club.

"They don't know each other," she said, smiling.

She paints not just for artists or for people who find art exciting, she said, but for people who think art is intimidating, who say "I can't do that" and find it mystifying.

"I paint humble things people always see and show people what they didn't know," she said, and her painting has led her to notice the world around her closely.

She has painted here across five decades, with time to raise three children and write two novels.

This summer has given her time to see people she loves. And when friends come to visit, she asks them to make a tiny, sloppy art project.

"I was an art teacher for years," she said. "I guess I can't help it. Anyway, I make them do it. They say, 'Oh, I can't draw.' "

She created the project in part to give loved ones something to do with her when they come. People get scared and don't know what to do, she said. So they paint in bright color on foam board shapes. They can make something with her and feel good about it, and that's enough.

By now their work has become part of her memorial. She has been planning it since she found out, in May, that it is coming soon. She plans to mount the small messy paintings on bamboo sticks, she said, and on the day children will carry them in. She wants them to have pinwheels too, to wave in church. It will be more of a party: no one in black, and no gloom.

"Not even the New Yorkers get to wear black," Carl said, smiling, wry and warm.

Her sister wants to tap dance.

"And I hope she will," Susan said. "I don't feel sad about it at all. I think it'll be fun. Everyone gets one. You just don't know when, that's all."

She is frank and vivid and laughing.

"I'm struck that people would feel scared of death," she said. "That never occurred to me. Were they surprised? It's one of the things that happens. I won't have to get run over. I won't get shot."

Later, standing in the driveway, Carl said, "Her attitude is amazing. It's a privilege to be around."

Sitting on the terrace, she held a painting of a monarch butterfly about to hatch. This summer for the first time she had seen one emerge from a chrysalis.

"I had no idea how beautiful they are," she said.

A friend showed her photographs. It happens quickly, she said. The chrysalis turns transparent, and the butterfly hangs tightly curled, wings wrapped around it like a vest. It wriggles free with wrinkled wings and fills them with liquid to help them expand.

A breeze comes and blows them dry, and they open out like a sail.

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