When Cancer Comes Home for Christmas

A version of this story was originally published in Huffpost.

I’ve been fascinated with the largeness of Christmas since I was a child — how it fills rooms, covers houses, takes over entire streets. I used to be an observer, not a participator, in what is arguably the most voyeuristic of holidays.

My family is Jewish and though we didn’t actively practice our religion, we also didn’t celebrate Christmas. Our house remained dark each December except for an electric menorah in the window, its blue lights the only sign that we celebrated anything at all.

I yearned for a tree throughout my childhood. I was enchanted by the concept Santa, and reindeer, and stockings filled with gifts. Imagine getting extra gifts stuffed into a big sock? The delight of opening each tiny present was, in my mind, unfairly denied to me.

When I met my husband, his family welcomed me into Christmas in a way I’d never experienced before. I had my own stocking that my sister-in-law decorated by hand. I still use it, 23 years later. I began wrapping gifts in red and green paper and shopping for stocking stuffers for the first time. At twenty-five, I was smitten with Christmas, though my husband had long ago grown bored with the annual traditions. That didn’t sway me. Christmas was finally mine.

It got even better after my daughter, Ana, was born in 2001. She was seven months old in December of that year and would’ve been happy playing with the wrapping paper and bows, but I showered her with gifts. To say I went overboard is an understatement. My younger daughter, Emily, was born three years later and, amazingly, the season got even better. I had my own family now, my own holiday traditions.

I coveted the weeks leading up to Christmas for years after my girls were born, feeling guilty about my overindulgences while simultaneously delighting in them. Even after Ana was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, Christmas remained a constant source of light and hope. Throughout the nearly five year span of her illness, Christmas was never denied to us.

We were lucky. I know we were lucky.

2015 was the year everything changed. An explosion of tumors in Ana’s pelvis and abdomen made their presence known the day after Thanksgiving. She needed extensive abdominal surgery to alleviate her pain and get her out of immediate danger. We thought we’d all be spending Christmas in the hospital for the first time since we heard the words, “Your child has cancer.”

2015 was also the first year that I couldn’t feel Christmas. I couldn’t reach it, no matter how hard I tried. With each day that passed with Ana in pain, with each heart-wrenching conversation I had with her doctors, with each agonizing talk I had with her about death and dying, Christmas dwindled a little bit more.

The tree was mine. The lights were mine. The red and green paper — all mine, but they were on the wrong side of the looking glass. I couldn’t reach them.

Ana had her surgery on December 19th that year and she made it home by Christmas Day, pale and in pain, but relieved to open presents in her own house, beneath her own tree. She would have one more Christmas with us in 2016. By then, we all knew it would be her last Christmas, but Ana’s face shined with true gratitude that day.

I couldn’t feel Christmas after Ana died — not the first Christmas without her and not the second. But this year, I feel a reawakening. It’s a feeling I plan to write more about — what it means, and how it’s still tied to Ana. It feels like a miracle to anticipate Christmas again.

As I rediscover an enthusiasm for the holidays that I thought was gone forever, I can’t help thinking about the parents who are facing the holidays without joy.

To those parents, I would say: I see you. I’ve been where you are and I know how very hard it is to get through the holidays when your heart is broken. I am so sorry.

For the lucky ones who have their hearts and families intact, I urge you to be gentle with the people in your lives you know are hurting. Their Christmas lights, if they have them, don’t shine as brightly as yours. The Christmas carols make them cry for a different reason.

On that Christmas in 2015, I recall staring at our glittering tree in silence, and feeling nothing but anguish. That year I honestly wondered if the denial of Christmas was punishment for taking ownership of a holiday that was never mine to celebrate. I’d worried about the lack of light. You see, with all my love of Christmas, I’d never figured out how to put lights on my house. It was the darkest house on the block.

The thought that ran through my mind was: “If I lose Ana, my house will always be dark.

I was wrong.

Ana died in March of 2017, and the first Christmas without her was filled with warm light. I burned candles. I decorated our tree. Then, last year, I strung lights on my windows for the very first time. The lights are for Ana, to help her spirit find our house. The lights keep the darkness at bay.

The hardest part about the first Christmas after Ana’s death, beyond the acute pain of losing Ana, was the diminishing. We were supposed to be four. How could we now celebrate Christmas as a family of three? I knew, even then, that I would need to bring Ana forward with us, into the holiday, and into the years that followed.

I coveted more than Christmas or any single holiday. I coveted the traditions that my husband and I created for our family that reeled the kids in, no matter how old they got, creating the perfect balance of excess, generosity, gratitude and love.

I lost those traditions for while, lost the sense of wonder — and celebration — that made the holidays special.

But this year feels different. This year I want to grab onto every tradition, old and new, and infuse them all with Ana’s presence and with the joy that her memory brings to me. When I wake up on Christmas day, I want my arms to be long enough, my hands strong enough, to reel my family in once again.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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