A Cancer Survivor’s Ghosts of Holidays Past

The singing voice of the Christmas song is the voice of my brother John Henry, who died almost 50 years ago of Disseminated Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I am thankful I can still hear this voice. John Henry had such a sense of humor when his teeth got knocked out in a car accident as a teenager.

This year, I have added a new stanza to that song as I have thought of my eyebrows. “All I want for Christmas is two eyebrows!” I sing in my head. I used to have enough hair for four people. After chemo, I had much less, including minimal eyebrows and eyelashes that never came back. Now I am taking a drug for eyes that has the side effect of stimulating eyelashes. If any drops seep out of my eyes, I wipe them on my wispy eyebrows even as I remember my brother bald, wise, accepting. He would not judge me for this small vanity.

It is not only voices, John’s and all the others, that I hear during the holiday season. Movies play in my head without any streaming fees. One movie features my mother Audrey’s festive last Christmas in her nursing home, before she wound down a long life from Alzheimer’s Disease and breast cancer. Another highlights my father, who died of complications of Parkinson’s Disease but also wound down his life with bladder cancer and related treatments. He loved the gift of a good book.

I would think of my parents at Christmas anyway, without the reruns, because they were the ones, along with my three brothers, who made it so special for so much of my life. Christmas trees, Barbie dolls, my first typewriter, a string of jade beads—over the years, they sacrificed to make Christmas special in our household. And let us not forget store-bought mincemeat pie.

Another favorite movie includes my friend Sam, long before she died of breast cancer, when I was in graduate school with her. This movie involves the making of Christmas cookies, something she did with a flair that I would never match in a hundred years. We were not the sort of friends who gave each other gifts over the long years we knew each other, although she gave me the greatest gift of all when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I can rewind the phone call she made and what she said to encourage me, any time in my brain’s archives.

Sam’s gift to me was her joy for life, a joy that she kept until the end. She was so giving within her family, her profession, her ability to share optimism with others. When I begin to think of Sam, all the other friends I have lost to cancer or some other cause join her in a special chorus this time of year. The ghosts of Christmas past, for me, include people who have touched my life, so many of the memories reminding me to try harder to find or share joy.

I do not mind visits from these ghosts, these memories, during the holiday season because they are balanced by interactions that I remain fortunate to have with living loved ones. Even if I wish for the eyebrows I used to have, I am thankful for a life I get to enjoy because of another treasured gift I received some years back, the gift that (so far) keeps on giving: modern medicine.

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