Celebrating a Life Lost to Cancer


When we lose a family member to cancer, grief may seem interminable. With time, though, the memories become golden, and there is no reason to forget the good because of the bad.

I get sentimental in December near my brother John Henry's birthday. I lost him to cancer at 21. Instead of crying my heart out when December comes, I try to find a way to celebrate my brother's birth. I am thankful for the time he got on this earth.

This does not mean that I did not mourn him when he passed away. I did. I had nightmares. I was depressed. Life did not make sense. One day, one year, it got easier, in part because my family keeps his memory alive with stories.

I think I stopped mourning when John Henry appeared in a dream as a healthy young man. That dream came just after September 11, 2001. I was sitting at the kitchen table with him and our father John, who had also passed (from complications of Parkinson's Disease and cancer). My brother and my father were two of the wisest people I have ever met. In this dream, I asked them to help me make sense of the senseless. They talked and gave me solace.

This year, the day before my brother's birthday, I did have a winsome moment as I remembered his 20th birthday. At that time, he was in a hospital far from home, where he turned 20 alone. He would not transfer to a VA hospital near home for a few months. Thinking of him by himself on that day, I decided to go to the grocery store after work to get ingredients for an opulent birthday cake.

I love to make cakes, which I then take to work because I love to share my experiments. For what would have been John Henry's 65th birthday, I made a mocha chocolate cake with a white chocolate topping also topped with pecan pralines made from scratch.

After I took a photo of the masterpiece to share, of course, on Facebook, I remembered a newspaper clipping in some files from home. When we lived in a small town where our father worked for the newspaper, John Henry appeared in the paper several times as a beautiful baby boy. Rustling through a file, I found the news clipping of a photograph of John Henry with his first birthday cake. There he was, all dressed up in a sailor suit with his long black hair combed to the side. He held a knife out, about to cut into the cake in front of him.

The photo made me think. After all, he had grown up to join the Navy. It was curious to see him as a toddler in a sailor suit. After I scanned the photo to share it along with the cake on Facebook, which would soon elicit lovely memories from people we knew when we were young, I returned to the file of photos.

There was our mother Audrey, home from the hospital holding her new baby up for the camera. There he was getting his first bath in our kitchen sink, a loaf of homemade bread by the sink. There he was as a seven-year-old standing in a field we played in with such carefree spirits. There he was, and was again, my beautiful big brother who died too young. Despite that truth, these photos made me smile. My time with them taught me that memories are golden.

Then I found the letter. This letter is one my mother saved and gave to me when she was getting dementia and discovering, as if for the first time, how sick John Henry had been. When she forgot almost everything else, one thing she always remembered was this, which she would note, pointing to a photo of him as a young man: "He died." In this letter, written at 20, he described his treatment in detail. Radiation had not helped so the doctors were trying two types of chemotherapy: infusions and pills. The letter included horrible details and yet it ended with a lighthearted cartoon character of himself he drew to help us visualize the vomiting.

I took my cake to work on his birthday and left it next to the communal coffee pot. It may not have had candles, but it was the best birthday cake I ever made for my brother.

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