There seem to be no limits to the ways 2020 can be strange. Coronavirus surge and ongoing chemotherapy notwithstanding, this is the first year since 2015 that mid-December hasn’t been marked, personally, by some kind of trauma or bad news.
Recent Decembers have been hard. In 2016 I had a bilateral mastectomy on December 12th. In 2017 I had nipple reconstruction surgery at Thanksgiving, and in mid-December the left nipple failed, which brought on cellulitis on the eve of Christmas Eve. That was the first time something in the long series of treatments and surgeries I’d had went “wrong,” and it hit me hard. In 2018 we got word on December 14th of the first recurrence; I had a surgical biopsy December 31st. Last year, in 2019, I was diagnosed again right before Thanksgiving, and we spent early and mid-December uncertain of the extent of the spread, shuttling to multiple scans and appointments, waiting for news. Treatment started the day after Christmas.
The year’s not over yet, and I don’t want to tempt fate. But I’m glad we’ve at least made it to December 15th this year without a sudden disruption to our lives. Certainly there is disruption, but as wearying as treatment and the pandemic are, neither are new adjustments. And chemo is going in the right direction, which is something to be glad of!
A lot of people find the winter holidays difficult, for a variety of reasons. I’ve been lucky; aside from my paternal grandmother’s death in early December 1994, and the loss of my beloved Tiko kitty just prior to Christmas in 1997, Christmas has almost always been a joyful time for me and my family. I love choosing presents for people, making ornaments, baking cookies. I’ve led a privileged life, and the holidays have been rich with tradition and abundance. Back when I was declared cancer-free after my mastectomy, the hope was that Steve and I would have just that one Christmas in 2016 impacted directly by cancer, and then things would return to normal–or rather, go forward, having been changed by cancer, but done with it.
Though my mind occasionally travels toward “what if…?” it’s simply too tender, too painful to contemplate with any depth what that life could have been like, had it been granted to us. I comfort myself with the reminder that there’s no guarantee an alternative path would have been better. That’s the thing about counterfactuals. We oftentimes imagine the thing that didn’t happen, the path we didn’t travel, in its ideal form. In my case, the house would be fully painted and decorated, I’d have finished and published a book (and it would be a bestseller!), Steve and I would be traveling regularly, and I’d be fit, thin, and have beautiful hair. Okay, it is likely I’d have hair. But–life happens. It’s never going to be perfect, chronic illness or no. Fairy tales are classified as fiction for a reason, and they stop at “happily ever after” because that’s precisely the moment things get complicated, and besides, happiness is a dynamic, messy, multi-faceted enterprise.
I’m happy I’m still around to note all these mid-December anniversaries, even as it can be hard to find the festive some days. I’m happy I’ve learned to pay attention to and appreciate all the good and beauty that is present, even when times are tough and the world’s gone weird. I’m glad for silly kittens, and old-fashioned paper snowflakes, and twinkly lights on our tree. I’m glad for today’s calm and routine, whatever tomorrow may bring.
Peace to you, friends, this December and always.