Merry Cancer–I mean Christmas

Christmas Tree

The weekend after my dad was diagnosed, a snowstorm hit. He was still in the hospital so my aunt stayed with me at my house while I worked on a Spanish project. I didn’t talk much. Just focused on my work. Está nevando. Estoy triste. Mi papá tiene cáncer.* With the snow falling silently outside, it felt as though the world had taken pause to acknowledge what had happened to me and my dad. I thanked the snow gods for finally hearing my prayers.

As the Christmas tree’s lights twinkled in the background, I monotonously worked on my project as my mind drifted across ideas of what my life would become in the next few months. I imagined what cancer patients looked like: hairless and fragile; what cancer patients acted like: soft and sweet; what cancer patients sounded like: soft spoken and quiet. All these characteristics were exactly the opposite of my dad. I imagined he would come home from the hospital a changed man. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to act around him. Would I hurt him if I hugged him? Would we acknowledge his diagnosis or ignore it and pretend like not much had changed? Would other people be able to tell that he had cancer now? How sick was he going to get? What kind of treatment would he receive? Would he die sooner or later?

By Tuesday, my dad returned home. Wrapped in a fleece robe, he sat hunched over on our red velvet ottoman beside our fireplace in front of the television, smoking a cigarette up the chimney. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, talk or stay quiet, or whether to stay in the room at all. I had forgotten how to be a daughter. I hadn’t yet learned how to be a cancer patient’s daughter, which I quickly figured out was quite different from the role I had before.

It didn’t help that he looked smaller than when I last saw him. Weaker. Defeated. I knew that couldn’t really be the case since I only saw him a few short days ago. What had changed instead, was my perception of him. No longer was he the strong and resilient man that would be able to protect me at any moment. He had become a cancer patient and appeared to have reverted to being a boy, in need of his mom to take care of him.

With Christmas coming up in a few short days, I did my best to pretend like nothing had changed. I wrapped the few presents I had bought, and even though I wasn’t really concerned with gifts this year–if I had it my way, I would’ve skipped Christmas entirely–I asked my uncle to take me to the local arts and crafts store where I bought a bunch of canvases and a set of paints and brushes to make small pieces of art work for my friends and family.

For the next couple of days, I worked tirelessly in my bedroom on pieces of art. In only my underwear and a flannel shirt, I sat on the floor with my canvases in front a tiny electric heater with a can of Coca-Cola in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. Although one of my aunt’s had helped me get “practical” Christmas presents for my dad, like slippers and warm pajamas (that he would subsequently live in for the next one and a half years) I wanted to give him something that truly came from my heart.

And that’s exactly what I painted. My heart. Flaming blue in the middle of a sea of warm colors. I spent all day on Christmas Eve working on the piece and by the end of the night, I was drained. But it was finished and I couldn’t wait for him to open it the next morning. I knew I could never top the leg lamp (, but a painting would surely mean more than a pair of socks. Of which I had bought three.

My aunt arrived that evening to spend the night (so I would have someone who could pretend to enjoy the holiday with since my dad was not exactly in the holiday spirit. I wonder why?) It was nice to have her around because at least she provided a distraction from the elephant that sat in the room. The elephant being my dad. The elephant more specifically being the tumor inside my dad. But without doing our usual Christmas traditions, the holiday felt foreign to me and I only wished the next twenty-four hours would go by as quickly as possible.

Waking up the next morning, I walked down the hall and didn’t even try to wake my dad up. Now that we knew how sick he was, I learned the first rule of being a cancer patient’s daughter: do not wake the patient up unless the house is on fire or you, yourself are dying. I came to believe that if he just slept enough, he’d get better. If only it had been that easy, he would’ve healed in a month’s time.

Looking in the living room, my aunt sat on our couch fully dressed her usual blue jeans and black shirt, smiling brightly. Despite the circumstances, she always had this smile spread across her face. It would have been easy to confuse her smile for heartlessness, but I knew she was just trying to prevent me from feeling worse while also hiding how helpless she felt, knowing that she could not fix what had been permanently broken.

I was surprised to see gifts under the tree but refused to open any of them until my dad woke up. Considering my dad had been in the hospital the whole Christmas season unable to get gifts for anyone, I wouldn’t have been surprised if my Christmas gifts had been forgotten—I wouldn’t have been surprised if everyone forgot I even existed…part of me wished they had.

I was determined to follow my newly learned patient-daughter etiquette, and therefore refused to wake my dad up so my aunt and I decided to make breakfast instead. I told my aunt what my dad and I usually made for breakfast on Christmas morning (pancakes, eggs, and bacon) and despite our scarce ingredients, my aunt was determined to make it a reality for me. She was trying to make this Christmas as normal as she possibly could. She told me to get dressed and so I layered up and we left the house on a scavenger hunt for some bacon, eggs, and milk. The supermarkets were all closed but in a last ditch effort, a deli was open and we managed to find all that we needed. Returning home, my aunt encouraged me to open one gift even though my dad was still sleeping, and I was pleasantly surprised to unwrap a couple of piano books that I had been yearning for. While my aunt worked on breakfast in the kitchen, I set up my keyboard precariously on our dining room table, put the volume at a barely audible decibel level and ran my fingers across the keys as I read the music. The sun streamed in through the venetian blinds of the dining room and for the first time since the diagnosis, I felt like things weren’t so bad after all.

The smell of bacon must have awakened my dad’s senses however, and he finally shuffled out of his bedroom and plopped down on the ottoman. He didn’t want to eat anything and ditching the breakfast table, my aunt and I sat under the Christmas tree and kept handing him gifts to open. Despite feeling nauseous, he sat through the opening of gifts and by the end was surrounded by several pairs of slippers, a robe, enough pajamas and socks to build an empire with, and last but not least, my painting, which he placed on the mantle above our fireplace where it stood for the next year and a half. He was grateful for what he got but thought we had gone overboard. He shuffled back to his room and fell back asleep as my aunt and I exchanged gifts and then got ready to visit my aunt and dad’s parent’s house.

Instead of my dad taking me to visit his family, my aunt took me and my dad’s brother picked him up later to bring him over since he wasn’t feeling well enough to drive. When I arrived however, it was as if nothing had changed in anyone else’s life. It was exactly like all the other Christmas’ past. No one mentioned that my dad just got diagnosed with cancer. Wasn’t everyone else’s world supposed to have stopped because mine had suffered such a violent cataclysm?

When my dad arrived though, things did change. Everyone treated him differently. They spoke to him in sweet baby voices and asked how he was feeling. People walked around him like he was a glass doll about to shatter at any moment. But didn’t anyone see he was still the same person?

And that’s when I realized the most important rule of being a cancer patient’s daughter: Treat your parent as normally as possible. Cancer doesn’t erase his or her identity.

Not at first, at least.


*Translation: “It is snowing. I am sad. My dad has cancer.” I’m not sure if my Spanish is correct here so if anyone can help me out, I’d truly appreciate it. I don’t want to offend anyone 🙂 

Also, I don’t have my painting with me here at college, but when I go back to my grandparent’s I will take a picture and post it. 

2 thoughts on “Merry Cancer–I mean Christmas

  1. This is a beautiful poignant piece that resonates with me as both my parents ultimately died from cancer. It’s interesting you decided to paint, as I took up painting when my mother was ill, but your reference to the snowstorm also brings back memories, as after my dad died, I felt numb for so long, until a walk in a snowstorm actually made me feel I’d come back to the world of the living. Thanks for sharing this.

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