The holiday music is a bit too jaunty for mid-afternoon when neither of us have had lunch, and the stench of my son’s hockey game is still clinging to his sweaty head and wafting toward me. Fake greenery is strewn about and a small child has figured out that Christmas bulbs can substitute for hockey pucks, which amuses me but perhaps not the staff working as half-hearted requests to put it back are ignored. We are here for additional steel, or extra blades he can pop in and out of his skates in the event he loses an edge in the middle of a game. The decorations remind me that I’ve yet to think about Christmas shopping, despite the holiday descending upon us. I think about the phrase that crept into our lives since my diagnosis: “Cancer doesn’t care that it’s Christmas.” Or any other holiday for that matter. I look around to see if there is any way I can accommodate a holiday list at a hockey superstore and sigh.
Ghosts of Christmas Past
The first Christmas of my diagnosis I was in the midst of chemo, but cramming in a reconstruction between semesters to not lose time with my students. Conveniently, that surgery was days before Christmas and the only thing on my list was to finish shopping and have things wrapped prior to the exchange of the turtle shells that were in my chest for what I hoped would be a softer, gentler outcome. Lifting a roast out of the oven on Christmas day, I decided my gift to myself was not falling into the oven and hugs to everyone else that did not cause bodily pain would have to suffice.
On the second Christmas after diagnosis (sing with me, friends), I spent Christmas eve plotting a second reconstruction with my surgeon. A delightful man, he dutifully took photo after photo for the insurance company, denied my request to turn the implants into refillable water bottles for endurance runs, and discussed the scarring that had to be taking place to restrict my range of motion. I found out he listened to 80’s hair bands during surgery and requested Guns N Roses, which he promised to play for my post New Year’s date. I took gifts where I could find them.
On the third Christmas after diagnosis, it was quiet on the cancer front. Quiet has never really been our thing, so we decided to shake things up a bit. There seemed no point in having a sense of stability after a couple of years of uncertainty and incessant field trips to hospitals and infusion rooms, with a few surgeries for the highlight reel. Christmas day two of us piled into the car as the kid had a hockey tournament in Toronto, and I was moving to a state 900 miles away to start a new job. I was always convinced someone’s head was going to fall off when it tilted to the side upon hearing of my cancer diagnosis. To learn of our family being in two different states, I thought I would have to push two halves of a body back together. Quiet space cannot be underestimated when considering a gift list.
Ghosts of Christmas Present
And here we are, on the fourth Christmas after diagnosis. My son and I, in what seems half a world away, walking around under the blare of Christmas music so loud I can feel it thumping in time to the beat of the wonky heart in my chest. I am thinking about recent cardiac imaging to monitor a year of injecting the equivalent of Round Up into my veins and upcoming appointments that I am deliberately putting off until after the holidays. The kid is trying to roll me for a pair of hockey sticks, the name of which slip off his tongue with so many syllables that I can’t tell if I’m unable to understand him because of his deepening teenage voice and low mutter he has acquired, or the name is simply longer than necessary for marketing purposes.
I look up at him, because at some point, he has gained six inches and a whole lot of pounds on me.
When I was first diagnosed he was a little kid. Literally, a little kid. But he was the kid that sat through chemo appointments with me. He raided the snack cabinet in the infusion room, promising the nurses it was for me but really eating it himself because I didn’t want it anyway. Chemo cheese is probably responsible for his size, but hockey scouts aren’t going to care about how he got that. Adults who have promised to be there no matter what have disappeared like glitter on an ornament over the years, but this kid has stood by me and like the hits he gives on the ice, he has never backed down. And I’ve been able to watch him grow into this man-child.
We are standing there in this back-and-forth banter that is characteristic of our relationship, watching his skates zip through the sharpener over and over as he makes a case for why he needs yet ANOTHER stick. I tell him that if I get it for him, every time he scores a goal he has to blow me kisses. He breaks out into a broad grin with an immediate no. And then he tells me something I never knew in the last three and a half years. His voice is quiet and his face sincere. My eyes well up as I lean forward and hear his words. And as much as cancer never cared about Christmas, he has given me the most important gift. Once his skates are done we go out to the car and I see his “old” skates in the trunk and just as he said, they are there, on the plastic base where the blades sit. My initials. The skates he wore when he had to go on a tournament to France by himself because I wasn’t well enough to go with him. The skates he wore in every tournament and every game before and after. Small enough I never saw them, despite holding those skates multiple times.
Ghosts of Christmas Future
Early in the morning the next day he has piled into the car, and I am carefully navigating snow and ice-covered roads for yet another hockey game. With every pot hole my car traverses on the road, hockey sticks clatter together and I smile to myself as I look over at him tucked down into the seat beside me, headphones over his ears, eyes tight together against the morning. As I usually do, I snug my finger under his for a brief squeeze as we drive.
The game finds me in my usual spot in the stands, the first period promising that if neuropathy had not already stolen the sensation in my feet, bitter cold of a hockey rink would. My fingers can barely maneuver texting on my phone to update scores so instead I put it away and shove my hands in my pockets instead. He is in front of the net, and I sit slightly straighter on the uncomfortably cold seats where I have found myself for years, even during chemo or post-surgery. Watching him is what got me through those times. And then I see his stick flash and the puck hit the back of the net.
His face looks up and he finds me. For the first time, my voice is quiet when he has scored. I’m thinking of his skates. Thinking of one more goal that I am here to see. Thinking that I’ve made it to one more Christmas. Goal.
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