It is one of those times of life that I remember and can connect with so strongly on the emotional level that it’s as if I’m reliving it. Christmas was always a big deal in our house; my parents were incredibly generous and we were incredibly lucky to receive far more than we could ever have needed.
But it was never only about the gifts. I’m a pretty traditional guy in the sense that I love tradition and my Christmases had a consistent theme: big family gatherings, lots of little cousins, and reading The Grinch on Christmas Eve. My bro and I are the oldest grandchildren on both sides so we would hold court with our little cousins in the basement of the host family’s house. We typically had a double shot of family on December 24, 25, and 26, between Mom’s side and Dad’s side, and we loved it.
My Grandfather Eaton would read The Grinch on Christmas Eve. When he died in 1994, the responsibility and honour became mine. Now that my bro and I have our own kids, my dad carries the torch for them. It is definitely top three in my favourite parts of the holidays.
In 1998, I was celebrating my twenty-fourth Christmas. It came six weeks after my diagnosis of leukemia. I was sprung from hospital a few weeks prior and had some time to recover from my 38-day stay. There was anticipation, excitement, and, at some major level, a lack of awareness surrounding my attendance at the upcoming holiday gatherings.
This is typical of me, especially at that time. I was truly in the moment, feeling so blessed to still be here for the holidays that thoughts of my now very bald head and my wiry frame that was down 30 pounds didn’t cross my mind.
After the family gatherings we headed to the Newmans’, neighbours from the time I was 10. The night was as if written for a movie–no wind, big fluffy flakes of snow falling–and in the middle of the holiday cheer I got an idea. I darted home, just two doors away, threw on my snowsuit and snuck into the Newmans’ backyard. I dropped down on their deck without any of the dozens on the other side of the sliding doors noticing and there I made perhaps my best snow angel ever. I jumped up, the patio lights came on and light up the angel perfectly.
In that moment snow angels were redefined for me.
The following days were different: deeper, slower, more meaningful, and as magical as my Christmas Eve angel. I was able to get a break from the hospital for a few days, reconnect with my “normal” side, and participate in the regular happenings of the season. It was healing. It also brought conflict as there was a part of me that wanted to stay in that space.
I requested a delay in my second round of chemo, which I was granted, so I began in the new year. As everyone returned to their routines and responsibilities I went back in hospital for my second round of chemo. Within minutes of it flowing, I was hit was severe headaches and my docs debated stopping my therapy. Within a day or so, I would have a lumbar puncture (needle in my spinal column) to test my spinal fluid for leukemia. On another day, I would have a CAT scan checking for a brain tumour.
It was a swift and shocking reminder that my life had changed; my path was different now. The holidays allowed that awareness to fade for a few days. I immersed myself in the moment and allowed my first holiday season with cancer to take me away from treatment. It was a reprieve for which I was grateful and a time I will hold in memory forever.
This year over 6,500 young adults are having their first holiday season with cancer; I hope they are able to cherish it they way I did.
Live life. Love life.