A Merry Christmas

28 Dec

Christmas was always my favorite holiday, thanks to the fact that I had a very comfortable upbringing. When I was younger, I would often try to sleep all the way through Christmas Eve because I knew Christmas morning there would be some particularly impressive present waiting for me, like a Nintendo 64 or complete set of X-men action figures or a bunch of Mexican wrestling DVDs (depending on the year).

As I get older, though, and as I start making my own money, the material aspect of Christmas starts to lose its luster. I can usually buy the things I want when I want them, so gift exchanges make me feel more and more like I’m just imposing on my people who have already purchased me an Ivy League education and now need to try and fund their own retirements.

In the time frame that Christmas has faded in awesomeness, both my mother and my aunt developed pancreatic non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. With that added development, Christmas time over the last few years has felt more and more like the time when I go back to Miami every year to dwell on bad news. This either exacerbated or was exacerbated by my previously-mentioned preoccupation with death and mortality.

Thankfully, my mom is doing well and is very healthy. Unfortunately, this past week I learned that my aunt has been moved to hospice care. The cancer has spread to her spine and brain, and she’s not expected to last long.

This Christmas morning came, and the gift exchange was a modest affair. Whereas years ago we’d be unwrapping presents for hours and playing with the gifts the rest of the day, assembling and installing whatever, we exchanged a few simple gifts, mostly just the things we had specifically asked for. It was a satisfying reminder that we all care enough to be considerate and thoughtful for each other, but it wasn’t the kind of gasp-inducing greed bonanza of childhood.

Then, after unwrapping everything, we visited my aunt. I was pretty much prepared for all Christmas-like cheer to end as soon as we left the house. We were told that her family had decided not to tell her the true extent of her condition, and she thought she was just in another hospital for more treatment.  We were to respect that choice, and as such, I expected the occasion to be us just feebly trying to make small talk while gritting our teeth and blinking back tears.

Nothing really prepares you for seeing what cancer can do to someone. Seeing my mom go through chemo and radiation therapy was rough, but I’ve never seen someone who was on the way out with no hope of coming back. My aunt had always been a radiant and warm person. The typical older Cuban woman who has a plate of sandwiches ready when you come for a few hours of gossip. That day she was on the bed, pale and totally bald. Less like a person and more like a wax dummy that someone was going to paint a living person onto later. I did, however, notice one thing that seemed to fight off the pallor overtaking the rest of her person: a smile. It was a tenaciously present smile that refused to yield to the inevitability of her mortality.

Ultimately, the tenor of that kind of situation is decided by the person who is the center of attention. My aunt, despite acknowledging not feeling that well bodily, was unequivocally cheerful, enjoying the presence of us, her husband, his sister and brother in law, and the other visitors who had been coming throughout the day. If she had been going through “good” days and “bad” days like most cancer patients, I guess we had come on a good day, because my aunt wasn’t fighting through any kind of haze to talk to us nor was she languid. She was every bit the person she’s always been: bubbly, social, and dying to know what’s going on in the lives of her nieces and nephews.

In fact, her condition never really came up in conversation. We talked about what was going on in my life, my sister’s life, our cousins, basketball, flim-making, we even talked about the Large Hadron Collider. We were looking at pictures and telling stories. She was telling me how much I looked like my father. It really felt just like any other visit with my aunt, it just happened to be in a hospice.

As the visit progressed I realized this is what Christmas has come to mean for me as an adult: a celebration of memories, life, and an appreciation of the company of your family, grounded in the knowledge that those connections are ephemeral and have to be cherished.

Against my expectations, I left the hospice with some of my anxiety about death assuaged. Something tells me that, even though nobody is going to tell her, she knows her time is near. You know what’s going on in your body. If not on a conscious level, then on a subconscious level. Even still, my aunt was fully enjoying that day. She seemed, for all appearances, happy. That’s how I want to go. Ideally I would like to be told if I am dying, but ultimately I want to be surrounded by those that matter to me, and my last days to be a celebration of the fact that I was alive rather than a grim countdown to the end of my existence. If the end of my life yields a group of people who will walk me to the door with a song instead of a dirge, then I hope that will be a reflection of a life well-lived.

In a time of my life riddled with uncertainty, that measure of solace was the kind of Christmas present I needed the most.

 

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One Response to “A Merry Christmas”

  1. Kristine Sara Ekman 12/29/2011 at 12:06 am #

    Beautiful. A very touching tribute. Sounds like a lovely holiday. 🙂

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