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 * * *


abandonedsouls said...

beautiful. i never knew anyone like Charlene. maybe one day i will.

i do have vivid memories of living with my mom at the hospital for the 6 months her cancer held reign. i remember the people i brushed elbows with when my mom was transferred to ICU time and again. you'd see them and then they'd leave either due to remission or the death of their loved one. it was a lonely, depressing time and yet i will never regret being there for my mother whatever our relationship was and had been. the nurses, patients, and relatives i met taught me more than i could have ever learned at 20. i carry those lessons with me.

i love what you wrote. it comes from the memories your heart carries. it also comes from your mind, not your brain. the two should never be confused. i think during the next couple of weeks when i feel the roller coaster crest for the fast plunge into sadness i will come back here and read this again.

here's to Charlene and everyone like her. here's to those who create joy when fear and sadness embroider the edges of everyday life. i've been having a sad day today. you've joggled memories loose from a time that has a lot i can draw from. you had no way of knowing what domino your words would knock over and that makes it all the more a gift. thank you.

Dan said...

What a wonderful and powerful message in your post. I look back on my journey with my husbands cancer, and while it took him away from me, I do recognized the gifts that came with it. I am especially pleased that my children were able to experience the grace and beauty of being present to someone as they are dying. There was so much love and attention given to Michael, that we reserved most of our tears for after he was gone.

Your story reassures me that this will remain with them throughout their lives.

Thank you for that.


Supa Dupa Fresh said...

wNs and Dan,

Thank YOU for letting me hear that those gifts were real and shared, even though I haven't thought about them in a long time.

We need every bit we can this time of year, don't we?



Jen said...

What a beautiful post, about a magical time. I admire Charlene and her husband's bravery, and ability to share themselves with their friends.


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