The holidays can be a difficult time for those of us who have lost a loved one to cancer. If the loss is recent, it can permeate every pore of your being, every traditional event of the season. You notice they are not there to decorate the tree, frost the gingerbread cookies, sing carols around the neighborhood, light the menorah. For a parent who has lost a child, cancer can take away all the joyful child-like innocence and magic of Christmas, if we let it. Can such a fathomless hole in the heart ever be filled?
Yes, I believe it can be... eventually.
Our daughter, Sara, died from her cancer at age 26 on July 17, 2000. The following Christmas we chose to honor Sara, who was born on Valentine's Day, by giving close family members and friends a shiny red heart ornament in her memory. Each year it is the first ornament we hang on our tree and the last one to be removed. Banish the dark, bring back the light. When Sara was dying, one of her deepest concerns was the prospect of leaving her family -- of not being present with us for our future celebrations. By hanging her shiny red heart on the tree, we make sure she stays a part of our Christmas tradition; we remember her and celebrate her short life, not our loss. We bake Sara's favorite short bread cookies and sing her favorite song. We adorn our tree with the ornaments she made as a child, when she still innocently believed in Christmas magic and that all things were possible. And when the swirl of bittersweet memories threatens to drag me down into that dark fathomless hole, I think of one of Sara's favorite magical Christmas moments:
It happened on Christmas Eve in 1997, and started with a joyous ringing of the front doorbell, announcing the arrival of a very special delivery package for Sara, who was 23 at the time and in the midst of her first round of chemo. With a jaunty red Santa hat perched upon her pale bald head, Sara tore away the Christmas wrapping to reveal an ivory-framed diploma: a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Victoria.
"It's my degree," she gasped, astonished, her blue eyes wide with wonder. "How did you get this?!"
Choking back my own tears, I explained to Sara that during the week before Christmas, while Brad (Sara's fiancé), Jenny (her sister), Lee (her father) and I were tending to her immediate cancer treatment needs, Michael, (a dear family friend and theater producer) called up the university to ask that they take into consideration the decade of professional theater experience Sara had in addition to her four years of "official" study, and grant her diploma. (Unsure of how much time Sara had left to live, Michael felt compelled to help her reach one of her lifetime goals.)
Sara read aloud from the accompanying letter:
Dear Ms. Taylor,
I have been told that you are currently undergoing cancer treatment and have been unable to fulfill your plan to complete your final 1.5 units of course work by correspondence. Please know that all of us here are thinking of you in your struggle and we hope that this knowledge of our support will be a source of strength for you.
Your accomplishments as a student in the Department of Theatre and in other university departments have always been of a very high quality, and I have also received excellent reports about your professional work in "Barkerville." On the strength of these two achievements I have asked the Senate of the University of Victoria to waive the remaining 1.5 units of course work and to grant you the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The decision of the Senate has been unanimous that your BFA should be granted now, and it gives me great pleasure to send it to you. Please note that it is granted "with distinction" in recognition of your success in the five different university departments. Only outstanding students are recognized with the honour of a degree "with distinction," and you deserve congratulations from all of us.
Thank you for all that you have given to your instructors and fellow students over the years and for your present courage and determination that are an example to all of us. We are very proud that you have been one of our students and are now one of our graduates.
Dean, Faculty of Fine Arts
University of Victoria
Tears of joy and disbelief streamed down Sara's cheeks. "Wow! I did it!" she said. "Now no matter what happens... I have my degree. I have accomplished something. I didn't know how much it mattered to me until now. This is the best Christmas gift ever."
And to think it almost didn't happen... I told her the rest of the story:
When Michael first called the university, he was told by the Dean's secretary that the Dean's office was closed for the holidays. Once Michael explained his special request to the secretary, she took it upon herself to canvas the dean and each Senate member by phone on Sara's behalf. Once they had all agreed, she arranged for the diploma to be printed and authorized. Then she packaged it up and rushed it to a courier, in hopes that it would arrive at our home in Vancouver before Christmas -- which, by then, was only three days away. Two days passed and nothing had arrived. One more day and it would be too late.
So, it was like a miracle when the doorbell rang at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve! Michael, Lee, and I cheered ecstatically, then raced into the back bedroom to place the diploma into the ivory frame and wrap it up... finishing up literally seconds before Sara walked through the front door to celebrate Christmas Eve with us all.
The vision of Sara ripping off that shiny Christmas paper -- her gasp of astonishment and her reading of those three little words... Bachelor of Fine Arts... her tears of relief, her joy over her accomplishment ("with distinction," no less!) -- has been a beloved family memory ever since. Add in the "magic" of Michael's drive, the secretary's compassion, the university's flexibility, a speedy courier, and most importantly, Sara's hard work and determination to excel even during her cancer treatment... all of it helps me to this day. It allows me to believe, once again, in the innocence and joy of Christmas. With that in my heart, I can continue to create new memories that honor the old, yet allow us to celebrate the present and the future.