Unknown obstacles….and graces

Many people remember the date they received their cancer diagnosis. I’m not so great with remembering dates (even birthdays) but related events and time of year do evoke memories.

These weeks before Christmas call to mind this time of year in 2007. I was newly-diagnosed with colorectal cancer, healing from surgery, just over sepsis, and deciding where to do chemotherapy. Apparently delusional as well, I figured that we could maintain our normal holiday traditions, and I would start treatments in January.

My husband, our two sons and I planned to travel to Pittsburgh to celebrate Christmas with my extended family. Our sons, at one and four years of age, were very excited about the prospect of Santa and presents, so I spent days online ordering a boatload of gifts (I’m sure to compensate for my cancer diagnosis) and sent everything directly to Pittsburgh. They would have more presents than they dreamed, and I was excited about spending time with this huge group of family I love. We were all set.

Then we hit a glitch: Every doctor at each of the treatment centers I consulted felt strongly that I should start chemo as soon as possible. As in, before Christmas.

This meant that we would be spending Christmas at home in Cambridge, where I had no gifts for the boys and no huge group with whom to celebrate. Total bust.

Now, in addition to feeling scared, confused, ungrounded and alone, I was devastated at the loss of a happy Christmas celebration for the boys and our family. But, unlike cancer, I eventually decided that was a tangible problem to solve and I was always good at those. Maybe I could manage it.

So I took a deep breath and thought….what productive thing could I do to salvage our Christmas? I decided to buy one really special thing for each boy and create an elaborate “treasure hunt” for them to work together and find their gifts.

In the FAO Schwarz catalog, I found a really cool, huge, plastic backhoe-loader truck for our four-year-old. It had a front seat and a back seat, a claw that could open and close and pedals to move its big wheels. For our newly walking one-year-old, I found a cute, round bug-like thing on wheels that he could ride independently.

I ordered these and procured the shipping to ensure they would arrive in time for us (my husband) to assemble them for Christmas.

A few days passed with no sign of the packages. I seem to remember that I started chemo in that timeframe. After a week, I contacted FAO Schwarz. They nicely said that the packages appeared to have been delivered. Maybe a neighbor got them by mistake?

I emailed the neighbors. No sign of errant packages. I called FAO Schwarz again. They promised to work on it. Each phone call was another day passing, another day closer to Christmas. I couldn’t get out to shop, and I had already spent a fortune on gifts that were sitting in Pittsburgh. Plus, I was out of creative ideas. Add “incompetent” to my myriad feelings.

In desperation, I found myself crying over the phone to the FAO Schwarz salesperson. I blubbered that I had just received a cancer diagnosis and was starting chemotherapy. I shared that my kids were one and four years old and these were the only gifts I could get for them this Christmas. She thought and then offered to send a duplicate of each if I promised to return the others if and when they showed up. I didn’t have a lot of confidence that these duplicates would arrive in time but I accepted her offer. It was the best I could do.

The next day, about two days before Christmas, I received a phone call from a woman in Illinois. She had been out of town for over a week, she told me, and when she arrived home, found two packages on her porch. Both were from FAO Schwarz and addressed to me, so she assumed they were Christmas gifts. She tracked down my phone number and called to say she had already sent them by overnight delivery to my home.

Stunned and overwhelmed by her humanity and generosity, I could only repeatedly say thank you from my heart. In retrospect, her actions were a lifeline providing the connection and grounding I needed to begin to get back on my feet.

She didn’t ask for money to cover the postage and she didn’t leave her name. I never explicitly told her about the positive impact of her phone call and efforts. I still carry the image of her as an angel on earth.

When Christmas morning arrived, we held our breath as the kids joyously completed their treasure hunt. Our four-year-old was thrilled with his backhoe.

FAO Schwarz Backhoe-Loader

Our one-year-old, expecting something equally large and wonderful, was sorely disappointed with his ride.

Wheely Bee Ride-on

Maybe he couldn’t pedal, but he had the upper body strength of Bam Bam and threw that bug across the room in fury. We laughed, and all felt suddenly normal; Christmas was saved. The day might actually be okay.

Each year, as Christmas approaches, I gratefully remember the compassionate woman from FAO Schwarz and the angel from Illinois (as well as my husband and brother-in-law, who together assembled the digger in the wee hours before Christmas).

Looking back, I wonder how I would have felt if someone at that time gave me details about the road ahead. Would I have panicked at the thought of all the treatments and surgeries and visits to the ER? Been sick at the thought that I would still be doing chemo and living with uncertainty?

The other day, one of our sons picked up a book that was a bit more difficult than his usual read. After working through it silently for awhile, he noted, “When I skip ahead and see a hard word, I can’t read it. But if I read along and then reach that page and that word, I can suddenly figure it out.”

I am sure that if I knew those life details in advance, I would have thought I couldn’t do them. But as each came up, we somehow, thankfully, either figured it out or bumbled through and moved on.

During this time before Christmas, I feel thrilled and amazed that I am here to celebrate again (even if I am still doing chemo). Yes, there have been trials, but the amazing experiences outweigh those: The exceptional and the mundane events that now appear in technicolor, the people who step up and in to help and carry me and my family, the friends I would not have otherwise found, the laughter I thought I might never feel again. I learned to row, started writing, traveled to places I otherwise would never have gone. I like to think I am more compassionate and patient than I otherwise would have been, and I parent differently. These are all gifts that might have been delivered to another person, but were also magically sent to me.

At this time of year, as I remember my early days traveling this path and realize where my family and I are today, I am stunned and overwhelmed by humanity and by the grace of God. I sit in profound gratitude and can only repeatedly say “Thank you” from my heart.

‘Tis the season

Zooming into Christmas, there is so much to appreciate. Mostly, I am giggly that I still get to hang out here!

For example, this is me and the boys in December 2007.

Polar Express 2007

I had recently recovered from surgery and sepsis (whew).  Our traditional plans to spend Christmas with my family in Pittsburgh were blown out of the water – we had to stay in town while I continued chemotherapy. Not much of a decorator under the best of circumstances, our holiday decorations were pitiful and I didn’t have presents to put under the tree.

It didn’t feel much like Christmas. We wanted something to make the holiday memorable in a happy way.

Friends told us about the Polar Express train ride in New Hampshire, where families board a train and get to wear pajamas for the ride, drink hot cocoa and eat chocolate with centers as white as snow. They disembark at the “North Pole,” where they are greeted by elves who walk them to a hut where the little boy who is now a man reads the book The Polar Express, telling his story. Santa makes an appearance, walking among the crowd, eventually selecting a little boy to pick the first gift of Christmas. That little boy asks for a bell from the reindeers’ harness, and asks for one for everyone. Then everyone boards the train for home, singing Christmas carols all the way.

We ordered tickets right away. My husband had to work so Dory-the-babysitter packed up the car, the boys and me and plowed for hours through a snowstorm, catching the train just before it departed. The photo shows me with the boys inside the hut at the North Pole, roughly six hours after I finished my first chemo session.

Every year, big-hearted friends from our church arrange a Polar Express weekend trip and, every year since 2008, we have been lucky enough to be invited to join their family. They are like a roving party, and my kids look forward our yearly Polar Express experience as much as they look forward to Christmas itself.

This is us, this year on the train:

Polar Express 2013

I look back and remember that first time on the Polar Express, not sure what we could look forward to but knowing that we could have a good time that night. I am simply gleeful that I get to do it all again!

We needed help from Dory to make it through that first weekend, and continue to rely on help from others, to various degrees and in various ways.

Thank you for being part of all that, for helping us to make wonderful memories, to be together as a family, to be with friends and to experience joy and love.

Blessings during this season and always,