It was Christmas Eve. I was sitting in St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island with my in-laws and my husband and son. I was glad we were all together. It was a warm Christmas--the temperature outside about 50 degrees. Inside we were packed into the pew and the church was tiny. I was O.K. at the beginning of mass, but as it wore on, I began to get very hot; I was having a Tamoxifen hot flash.
I searched in the shelf on the pew in front of me for something to fan myself. All I could find was a heavy songbook. I picked that up and tried to cool myself with it by fanning it in front of my face, but the book was too clunky. I needed a church bulletin or some kind of paper fan.
The elderly woman with a pointy nose, in a grey car coat, sitting next to me said, "Warm?"
"Yes," I said. "I take Tamoxifen, and it gives me hot flashes."
"Oh, my daughter takes that. She gets them, too." She reached in her purse and pulled out some folded pieces of notebook paper. "Here," she said.
"Thanks," I said, and began to fan myself with them. The waves of coolness coming off the paper felt like a breeze in paradise.
"Did you have breast cancer?" the woman asked.
"How long ago?"
"My daughter had it in when she was in her 30s. She's 54 now."
And just like that, a bond was formed between us. She understood the Tamoxifen hot flash.
For the rest of the mass, when I just couldn't stand it any longer, I picked up those blank pieces of notebook paper and cooled myself with them. For all I knew this could be the exact "fan" that the woman gave her daughter when she was boiling with a hot flash, perhaps, she kept it in the outside pocket of her purse just for when it was needed the most.
I got many gifts for Christmas that year--clothing, expensive dark chocolate, a bottle of my favorite wine from my husband, pajamas from my sister-in-law, a set of Sharpies to edit with, a beautiful bracelet that said "Earth Angel," but the gift I would remember most that Christmas was the paper fan, those few pieces of folded notebook paper that relieved me during mass.
Survivors and loved ones of survivors are all around us. We walk a familiar path, and when we can help each other, we gladly do.
From that point on, I vowed to carry a few pieces of notebook paper with me in my purse wherever I went. If I didn't use it, maybe some other suffering individual would.
The woman was alone in church, and I was without my birth family, including my mother, who was back in Ohio. To the outside world, we became just another mother and daughter bound together by a precious gift--the gift of a paper fan.
It was a beautiful Christmas night.