Cancer’s Crazy Christmas Mother

HealWinter 2007
Volume 1
Issue 3

Seeing every Christmas as a last chance to etch a memory of ouselves in everything our children touch.

On Christmas Day 1986, my daughter Kirtley still had a number of packages to open three hours after we started. In fact, it looked as if Santa had suffered a meltdown at our house and left every toy still in the sleigh under our tree.It wasn’t just the number of gifts surrounding her, but the fact that many were more suitable for a child of 9 or 10. The absurdity of giving a 15-month-old the complete set of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe didn’t even occur to me.

If the incredible excess seemed strange to my husband, he didn’t mention it, despite the fact that our Christmas tradition had always been to understate gift-giving. My daughter’s first Christmas the year before was so low-key we put her under the Christmas tree, taking a picture to remind us that she was the greatest gift we could give each other — and that the costs of her being six weeks early meant we were so broke we had to pay the hospital with a credit card to get them to release her.

It certainly didn’t occur to me that anything about the Christmas overload looked amiss. Indeed, as Kirtley sat playing with the piles of wrapping paper (which were much more interesting to her than the books, puzzles, trucks, and doll babies that drank and peed), I remember thinking about other items I should have added. But my energy had been limited by fatigue and nausea from my chemotherapy treatments, which had started at the end of October.

It was years before I made the connection between my breast cancer diagnosis and what I had dubbed my “Crazy Christmas Mother” persona, who shopped early and hard, threw budgets out the window and tried to anticipate all the wishes and dreams her child might have in the years to come — when Mom might not be here.

For women with children, cancer destroys the assumption that there will always be a Christmas. Since we don’t know whether our cancer will come back, we approach every Christmas as our last opportunity to permanently etch a memory of ourselves in everything our children touch so they will remember us if we die.

What better way to guarantee our place in their memory, if not with our hugs and our voice, than by providing them every toy, book and object available to mankind?

The problem increases with each Christmas until either the bank account or therapy brings it to an end. Once engaged, Crazy Christmas Mother must outdo herself, making each subsequent year more memorable than the previous one.

Despite beginning normally, the Christmas of 1987 also started to spiral out of control. First came the designer mother-daughter dresses and the portrait, followed by more age-inappropriate gifts aimed at the future but tucked in with the usual packages. There were books, stuffed animals and a fairy princess room with a satin-look bedspread. Over the spread I hung netting on which I sewed crystals and beads. In 1988 there was the family dollhouse that was painted with special-order dollhouse paint, filled with furniture and decorated with care from top to bottom.

It wasn’t until the fall of 1989, when I joined a support group, that I began to recognize Crazy Christmas Mother. I was exhausted and broke, but at the first cool day, I could feel the urge to shop begin to tug at my wallet. Then another mother in my support group reported that she had had some strange desires to begin shopping for her children — and she hated to shop.

What better way to guarantee our place in their memory, if not with our hugs and our voice, than by providing them every toy, book and object available to mankind?

There it was: the first symptom. I told the other mother about my daughter’s overflowing bedroom and of fulfilling her every wish, seeing in the woman’s face that I had affirmed a fear she had not yet been able to articulate. Christmas excess and overindulging our children helped minimize the terror of leaving them motherless. Another mother in the group admitted to buying her toddler a 21-inch bicycle the year after her diagnosis.

A few weeks of talking helped us find ways to create gifts for our children that did not involve conspicuous consumption — gifts like letters or books, inscribed lovingly, on topics we thought were important. With a better understanding of the emotional issues of breast cancer, Crazy Christmas Mother began her recovery from the need to be remembered with things instead of with moments. Christmas returned to a time of celebrating life instead of fearing death, and gift-giving once again became a simple gesture of love.

I am grateful for one thing. Because my diagnosis came when Kirtley was so young, she wasn’t able to take advantage of her Crazy Christmas Mother. My support group friend, on the other hand, was headed for bankruptcy. She had three teenagers who were in total agreement when, a few weeks before Christmas, their mother suggested it was time to think about a car for each of them — when two were not yet old enough to drive.