Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Christmas Promises Hope beyond the Pain

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Christmas Promises Hope beyond the Pain

Article excerpt

This year's holiday preparations floated by so smoothly, it felt eerie. Presents got wrapped, cards sent, the tree trimmed, all with a minimum of fuss and no anxiety whatsoever. Every so often, I'd glance over at my husband and grin, smug that we'd finally learned how to celebrate without agony. He'd warn me not to gloat, it wasn't over yet.

It certainly wasn't. The week before Christmas, my father-in-law, beloved teddy bear and patriarch of the family, learned that melanoma, the most aggressive skin cancer, had been eating into his back undiagnosed for two and a half years. Two days before Christmas, they did a CAT scan and found a spot on his lung.

He's a big, healthy, ruddy-cheeked guy, the kind they call "strapping" in the country, and he's already beaten heart disease (quadruple bypass) and a wicked assortment of lesser ills. Besides, the spot might not even be cancer. Spirits laced with equal parts of optimism and fear, we started doing research while we waited for the lung surgeon to call.

People were immensely helpful. Good friends in Texas told us the happy story of another friend who'd undergone the same -- what do they call it? Disease pathway? -- and is fine now. A perfect stranger whose interview I had to reschedule said spontaneously, with warm sympathy and obvious experience. "The thing about cancer is that it makes you appreciate every moment. Even a good cup of coffee. You'll always remember this Christmas, because you're not taking anything for granted."

Then she added, "But this is a rough time of year." Everyone we talked to had said something to that effect, I suddenly realized. Either they'd sighed about how "things like this always happen this time of year," or they'd commiserated about how doubly sad it was to hear bad news at Christmas time. At first, the notion had irritated me -- is there a good time? Then the refrain began to ease me, letting me admit the childish resistance that had risen up the instant I heard the CAT scan results. It was that little-kid feeling of wanting, desperately, for things to be right, for everybody to be happy, for the holiday to be the magic it's cracked up to be.

I said an hour of Hail Marys, more than I've said in years, and regained some of my hope and peace. Then I took a deep breath and looked around. My best friend and her husband were spending the holiday visiting his mom, who's hospitalized overseas. Another dear friend, single and gay, was casually checking to see where the friends he's turned into his family would be on Christmas Day, so he could call them. Sure, people were making happy bright plans, but they were weaving them through the existing pains and worries of their lives.

On Christmas Eve our office closed at 1 p. …

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