There’s seldom a time when I am not aware of the blessings I have, and never more so than during the holiday season when the abundance of my own life seems overflowing in comparison to what so many others are experiencing.
Today was one of reflection as I started the day in a somber mood, remembering a dear friend who passed away unexpectedly seven years ago this very day. I had much to do early in the day, working on an end-of-term final paper and figuring out where I stood with my holiday preparations before heading off to Barnes & Noble to engage in volunteer gift-wrapping to benefit a nonprofit transitional housing program. In thinking about the day, I felt good to be doing something for others and at a place that my friend loved so much, too. It was the type of activity that she and I might have done together and most likely would have done many times over the years had she been here to still participate.
Instead, I was wrapping with another close friend, one who had done this each holiday season with me for many years now, and it’s a seasonal tradition that we particularly enjoy. It gives us a chance to visit together in the middle of a busy time of year and catch up while we interact with customers and wrap their gifts. The atmosphere is generally festive and the shoppers are grateful for the assistance in readying their gifts for giving. This afternoon was no different really—except we met a young man who sitting nearby charging his phone in the café.
I remember thinking that it was odd at first that he managed to burrow his way back into near where we had gift wrap stations set up, and then realized it was most likely closest to the outlet to plug in his charger. I also noticed that he seemed particularly interested in what we were doing, and I will admit that at one point, I took notice of where my purse and my friend’s were sitting on the floor because he seemed intent on our activity.
Suddenly, as we were both busy wrapping, the young man spoke up and said, “It makes me so happy to watch you wrapping gifts. I’ll tell you why when you’re done.” Immediately, I figured it was because he was listening to the customers talking about who they had purchased the gifts for and their excitement to see the recipients open them—or perhaps he liked seeing all of the great gifts coming to us for wrapping. Maybe he just loved that we were doing it on behalf of a nonprofit. As we finished up the gifts and the customer hustled on her way, we turned to him and my friend asked, “So why does this make you so happy?” And what he said really took us by surprise.
He told us that his mother had taught him to wrap gifts and that earlier this year she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We both were taken aback, and then he said that she went into remission. My friend, who works for a cancer-related medical organization, started to high-five him with enthusiasm and instead, he held up his hand and said, “But wait. . .”
Recently, within a very short time of receiving the good news, his mother was told that the cancer had returned, and it had returned with a vengeance. His mom was now in hospice care and didn’t have much longer to live. We were devastated by this news and I told him that I had to hug him if that was okay—he welcomed my hug and my friend’s as well.
As it turns out, he has been at his mom’s side day and night and finally yesterday, she told him to go home for a couple of days. She wanted him to get some rest and yet, he couldn’t really sleep. It was nearly 4 pm and he had been up since 3 am and couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours at a time anyway. He was amazed that he didn’t feel tired; in fact, I would hazard a guess that he wasn’t feeling much of anything except overwhelmed with all that was happening and feeling as if it was all too surreal. I understood what he meant.
As we talked, I said, “Doesn’t it seem almost ridiculous that life can be going on, Christmas happening and people going about their business when this is happening in your life and everything seems like it’s at a standstill?” He agreed readily and I told him that I’ve come to believe that it’s the beauty and the bitch of life—in spite of the worst possible things, life does go on and we will, too, no matter what happens to us or to the people we love. We somehow endure, and most of the time, we can’t even understand how we are managing to go on.
When we lose someone we love, particularly someone that is ill for a period of time, our life is consumed by their illness, by their care, by our worrying and our concern for doing what we can for that person. Then suddenly the person is gone and our lives feel meaningless; we’re lost and aren’t sure how to fill that time or how to find a way to have some meaning once again, but we’re often not even all that aware of any of what we’re feeling.
We talked at length and while his words impacted us greatly, I couldn’t help but feel that he may not remember a single word he said or anything that was said to him either. He may remember feeling some comfort, or perhaps some relief in being able to talk, but the rest will be just part of the blur that he is experiencing as he tries desperately to understand how this has come to be. His age alone, just 19, is making it hard to grasp that he will soon be just this age and not have his mother any longer—something that is troubling him more than he probably knows. He never expected her to be gone so soon.
It made me think again of my friend and her daughters, who are now in their mid and late 20s, and how much of their lives she has missed—and how cognizant they are of what they have missed with her. I thought of losing my dad a dozen years ago to cancer, and how fortunate I am that I had him forty years, although I miss him everyday still and mourn what we aren’t able to share with him now. And then I thought of my daughter—soon to give birth to my first grandchild—and how very fortunate I am to be able to witness this miracle in my own life and how grateful I am for it to be so.
You see, I am a cancer survivor—a survivor of an aggressive, stage 3 cancer. I told that young man this today, and for a split second I wondered if he resented that I was still here when his mother will not be. I would understand if he did. It’s something I’ve questioned time and time again myself, why did I luck out when so many others do not. And this brings me back to why I do many of the things I do, why it’s important for me to be of service to others and to want to experience as much as I possibly can with my family and with others in my life.
Our lives are too short and some are far shorter than others. In this weekend before Christmas, as I reflect on the short life of my friend Cheryl and the effect her death has had on her children, as I await the birth of my first grandchild, as I sit on my couch taking in the beauty of our Christmas tree in a warm, modest house, and as I think of that young man and what the next days will bring for him, I count my blessings once again and hope that he has the strength inside, and the love and support from friends and family, to allow him to cherish what he still has and honor his mother with the life she would have wanted him to have.