Holly Jolly?

December 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm (Uncategorized)

What should I get my niece for Christmas? How many Lego sets should Andrew get? Do I wrap them here, or bring them with me to my family’s celebration in Alabama? How can I find time to shop when I’m getting my infusion meds today? What can I get as stocking stuffers for Andrew? For Jay? Should we celebrate Hanukkah before or after we leave?

This litany of to-dos and worries—all of them trivial—kept me up until the middle of the night. At some point shortly before dawn, I finally convinced myself to “STOP!”

Now I’m waiting to get my monthly dose of chemo and TNF inhibitor. It’s a good thing I’m back in the chemo room before Christmas. I’ve written about how special a place the chemo room is before. But I’m grateful to be here today for a more melancholy reason. One of the women I’ve had personal and intense conversations with for the past couple of years when our treatment days overlap is here. We know each others’ family dramas and disease sagas. She has been battling cancer, first breast and now brain. She isn’t here for treatment today—just to see the doctor about pain management strategies. He’s stopping her chemo and radiation because he can’t stop the cancer. She said she wants one more Christmas with her family. Her teenaged and grown-up children are gathered around her here today. They bring her cookies and coffee. They are talking about movies. “We should stream the Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain,” her husband says. My chemo friend looks like she isn’t falling apart. She is wearing a hat with reindeer antlers.

I have never learned this woman’s name. (We rarely exchange names in the chemo room.) But I think of her as friend, and I feel like crying. But one of the rules of the chemo room is “No crying.” So I try to be glad that I am here today with the opportunity to say goodbye to this kind and strong woman.

I wonder what thoughts have been swirling in her head these past few nights. I bet it’s not about the logistics of gift-giving or wrapping paper. I am ashamed at my descent into triviality.

As I listen to my friend talking with her family across the room, however, it turns out they are in fact constructing a Christmas shopping list. A young woman is recording ideas on her iphone. “Make sure to get a ham,” the husband says. “Hang on. We’re not done with gift ideas,” my friend with cancer says. “What about us all chipping in to get Aidan a wii?”

Once again, the chemo room makes me reassess. It is a privilege and a necessity to dwell on the mundane. I sometimes (especially at 4am) feel ridiculous for fretting incessantly over the minutiae of the holidays. At the same time, though, it would be terrifying and terrible to be forced to stop thinking about what to cook, what to give, how to make others happy – to have all of that crowded out of your mind by the profound that is so often profoundly sad. There needs to be room for both.

Think of my friend whose name I don’t know as you make your holiday preparations. Celebrate the details. Be merry and be well.


  1. Amy Pridemore said,

    Feeling very thoughtful after reading this post. And grateful that all I really have to fret over this holiday is getting ready for it. I wish everyone could be so lucky. Thank you for your words.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Amy. It is kind of nice to be caught up in the little things of the season. If you boil it down, it’s about making other people happy and being together. Those aren’t bad things to be worried about.


  2. Marianne said,

    You are right. If I didn’t have the four teachers, in-laws, and cousins to freak out over, it wouldn’t be the same and instead of being crazy, I would be sad. I think I would take crazy any day.

  3. Leanne Shirtliffe said,

    Wow. Love the about-face on this post. Makes me think. Makes me thankful. Makes me glad I stopped by.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thank you so much for stopping by Leanne. You and Trish and Elena inspired me at SiWC 2011 to try and blog more regularly. It’s been a lot more fun to post here more often with this advice. I don’t feel like I need to “catch up” with mega-posts because I’ve been so sporadic on the blog. Plus, getting such nice feedback makes blogging fun.

  4. randy bekkedahl said,

    I’m feeling grateful right now–and that includes being grateful for finding Chronic Town. Thanks for your words, Rebecca. I hope you have a blessed Holiday season and a joyous Hannakuh.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Happy Holidays to you, Randy. And I am so grateful for your thoughtful and supportive feedback on this blog. As I just wrote to Leanne, writing for Chronic Town (the blog) more often these past few weeks has been rewarding and helped make Chronic Town (the life with a chronic illness) less lonely. But I’m not sure I would want to put the work in without knowing that people who get it-like you–are taking the time to read and care. I’m sending wishes for better health for you and your family in 2012.

  5. Paul said,

    I may be a little off track so excuse my rant…..Too often this time of year degenerates into being about stuff. Far more important are the people who we celebrate with and the thoughts behind a gift.

    Rebecca – I will be celebrating with you and Jay and Andrew from across the world. Have a great day.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I get what you’re saying, Paul, and I agree. (That wasn’t a rant, by the way. If so, then my usual fare must be a screed.) You got me thinking. Here’s some rough, unedited follow-up thinking, prompted by yours and Martha’s point. I wasn’t trying to advocate crass commercialism during the holidays. Christmas (and Hanukkah increasingly too) is indeed way too much about stuff and doing things “the right way” (by spending too much money and fraying oneself). What I was trying to do in this essay, though, was celebrate the “daily life”–the ordinary tasks we think we don’t want to do, until we lose our capacity to perform them–of the holidays. I was struck by talking and listening to my friend who is dying of brain cancer that making holiday meals, congregating with friends and family, and thinking about giving aren’t necessarily tedious and onerous burdens. For instance, last year I was getting a defibrillator implanted right before the holidays. I missed participating in the making of the holidays. Yes, the people we are with and the peace and joy in our hearts trump any material thing. But it’s a blessing to be able to turn even a little to “little” concerns (that are, YES, much less significant than the people we love). The fact that I can ponder menus, rituals, and small gifts for Drew means I’m well enough, well off enough, have enough energy, etc. to do more than just survive. I think we have totally lost sight of that “enough” and get lost in spending and doing too much.

      I remember the holiday season of 2007, right after meningitis was turning to chronic neurosarcoidosis. I was in so much freaking pain and I was terrified at the laundry-list of (then) seemingly inexplicable symptoms that kept me bed-ridden and in such bad shape I didn’t want to look at a Christmas tree or light a menorah or watch my son’s eyes shine with delight in the candle’s gleam. I wanted to be alone, in the dark, on as much obliterating medicine as possible. Of course, I (wo)manned up and marked the season. It was important for me and Andrew and Jay to be together. But it sucked for all of us. I just feel grateful that it’s not solely about surviving this year for me. I feel fortunate to be able to celebrate what would have looked frivolous in 2007. Does this make sense as a distinction?

      I’m grateful for yet another thought-provoking angle from you, Paul. Let me know what I missed.

      Sending wishes to you and your family for health (as much as you can get every day) and happiness in 2012.


  6. Martha Kohl said,

    I’m with you, Paul–sometimes to my kids’ dismay.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Martha,

      I guess I didn’t make my point clearly in this piece. I thought a lot about Paul’s and your comments and wrote more in my long reply to Paul. Let me know what you think.

      Thanks for always reading my stuff–and caring enough to think it through with me.


  7. Martha Kohl said,

    Actually, I think it was a very good piece and your point was made clearly and is relevant and important. We all are bringing lots of baggage to this party and my comment actually wasn’t really in response to your essay at all. It was solely in response to Paul’s larger points re the season and how it is commemorated. I was just glad to hear someone else “rant” since I do so much of it myself this time of year.

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