One Christmas with Cancer
When I was a child, our family had one close friend with cancer. In and out of the hospital, chemos, surgeries consumed her over the course of twenty years. No one knew much in the 70s, but for sure little information would make it down to the kid’s level. We wouldn’t see her for months, half a year at a time, though she had once been my mother’s roommate and was a prominent personality.
I remember seeing her once at a museum event, after a long time away, looking much better, more full. With uncharacteristic honesty, my father later said her abdomen was filling up with tumors.
I could barely picture all the cutting, it was too horrible to imagine, a doll being sewed back together. Charlene was glamorous, a high school beauty queen with regal bearing and somewhere, I’m sure, the sash. As a concert cellist she was at her best in evening gowns. Drunkie, abuser of painkillers, never a dull moment, this adult woman held a surprise around every curvy corner for us kids.
The year I was 15 I was horribly depressed. I hated my face scabbed over by acne, dyed my hair into a vacuum of coal, bursting out from my past (and future) Modigliani outlines. My best friends had all left for the alternative high school. My remaining friendship was a manic Polish dominatrix wanting to milk me and ruin our sole escape, a music fanzine. Nothing was right. I wanted to disappear, find a cave and rest.
But on the fourth of July, my parents insisted I come out with them to Charlene’s because she and her husband had a roof with a perfect view of the river. I wouldn’t have to be with the crowds, and I could lose myself in the sights and sounds and smells of a glorious fire. Heck, I could even bring my own music and ignore the John Williams. No commitment – just a way to kill a few hours before my evening’s destination, the punk rock roller rink, opened.
We got over to their warehouse loft to find a 10-foot plastic Christmas tree.
“Charlene was in the hospital most of the winter, and we never got around to trimming the tree. Why not tonight?” It was hot and dusty in the loft. George got out a ladder and started to pull boxes of ornaments, packed carelessly, from their enormous catwalk. Everyone had a role, and conversation was optional.
I don’t remember what the ornaments looked like, or whether there were lights. I’m sure there was the old, deadly lead tinsel (we had some in our house when I was a kid). There were stories, I don’t remember a one, and probably drinks for the adults. A young German scholar was visiting and I think he listened to my philosophy of life or something. Around 10 he and I absconded for the club where we might have seen one of the members of Run-DMC (somewhere I have a picture of him). There was nothing sexual. I was too depressed, I think, to even imagine that. I’m sure I only moped, hair in my eyes, maybe danced to “Dancing with Myself,” possibly hid from the cool girls in the VIP room.
But around that fake tree, in the shadow of Charlene’s death, with my PARENTS, this depressed teenager had the best time. It was a real party, spontaneous, surprising, extreme.
We heard the fireworks start but no one wanted to stop digging out ornaments and taking turns on the ladder. We missed every last spark, laughing all the way.
I’ve forgotten the details but I will always remember that Christmas in July and the surprises it revealed, from me, from my family, from a dying woman, from boxes of junk, and from the world. How sometimes the wrong place at the wrong time is perfect. How you can create your own world in a few hours and lose yourself in something that’s almost nothing.
When Gavin was dying I shut out the memories of Charlene’s cancer. We always thought she was going to die every minute, every few months brought serious news to not talk about. We could smell it. It seemed worse than it was, it seemed better than it was, cancer lied and cheated. “In the end,” as we say, Charlene did die, but she exceeded everyone’s expectations by far. Knowing her, she’d have given Jesus credit between bong hits.
Gavin and I had many magical times, too, in that shadow. Experiences to cherish, where we lived beyond what was possible and solely in the moment at the same time. Times that were like lucid dreams, 100% in both of two worlds. 200%.
Cancer gives you a story, a struggle, a fight: but those wackos who say it’s a gift have a point.
I wish I spent more time remembering that angle on my last two years with my husband and our daughter. But it’s never too late.
* * * Comments * * *