Don't Let Cancer Steal Christmas

If you have a family member who is sick or terminally ill, my advice to approach a holiday is to remain festive, even if the person you want to celebrate does not appear inclined to join in too many festivities. The holiday may become one you will never forget.

The tree was especially bright that year, every ornament from our family tradition displayed alongside colored lights and recycled tinsel. There were more boxes than usual, too. One surprised me with a string of jade beads from my mother. Another revealed something even more precious: a bottle of perfume from my older brother.

John Henry paid $6 for it at Eckerd’s, this glass bottle of Frankincense and Myrrh. That was forty years ago, when I was 19, yet the scent remains strong today. Every now and then, as the years pass, I will open the bottle and inhale the scent. Every Christmas Eve, I dab some on my skin to smell, for a few hours, simultaneously like a little sister and — as Jovan intimated — the Queen of Sheba.

An electronics technician in the Navy, my brother had missed spending the previous Christmas at home, though not because he was at sea. He was in a distant hospital, where we had all visited him in the fall, recovering from surgery and beginning treatment for a lymphoma with a "terminal prognosis." He came home later on leave to spend his last months with family and friends.

It was a surprise to find John Henry still with us on Christmas of 1975. I think that is why my parents made sure that this holiday would be unforgettable. If you have a family member who is sick or terminally ill, my advice to approach a holiday is to remain festive, even if the person you want to celebrate does not appear inclined to join in too many festivities.

A holiday is an opportunity to balance doom and gloom with good cheer. For example, when I was dealing with breast cancer, Thanksgiving and my first chemo treatment coincided. Although I said I wanted to be left alone, family members showed up anyway with turkey, pies, dressing — everything. They made sure I was well fed, well loved and they washed the dishes. I am glad that I did not spend Thanksgiving feeling sorry for myself.

Sometimes in the face of serious illness, people try harder than I was inclined to. What I remember about John Henry’s last Christmas is not that we were thinking it was “the last Christmas.” While we knew it would be, death was not something we dwelled on. Life went on. John Henry, the oldest of four children born in five years, had celebrated turning 21 in early December. When Christmas followed, the holiday was as sparkly as if we were children mesmerized by toys.

John Henry Mitchell was to remain hopeful throughout his entire ordeal, and it was an ordeal. Cancer treatment seemed so challenging that I vowed, as I witnessed what my brother went through, I would never undergo chemo. If my turn came, I would let cancer take its course. At the same time that I admired my brother’s courage — his tendency to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to supplement pain pills, his decision to take college classes in case he did live, his ability to celebrate Christmas — I knew he was extraordinary. He was the big brother after all.

The holiday season includes sharing gifts with people we love. Sometimes these gifts are jade beads a mother buys, trying to spoil a daughter with vivid holiday memories, or cheap drugstore perfume as poignant as it is pungent. The best gifts, however — the heirlooms we should cherish — cannot be found under Christmas trees. I love my Frankincense and Myrrh, but John Henry did not just give me perfume. He gave me the strength to handle cancer treatment when my turn came. Every day is a gift.