Greetings from CancerLand: The Last Noel

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

for S.S.

Six years. I check the calendar and still can’t quite believe my eyes. Six years since that December. Her last December.

Here’s what I remember:

She and I were support group buddies who gradually turned into best friends. And like so many patients who find each other, forge a bond and travel through CancerLand together, we focused on getting through it as a team, one challenging day at a time: the doctor’s appointments, the surgeries, the rounds of chemo, the seemingly endless wait for test results…

Until one day in late November when we heard the terrible news from her doctors. There was nothing left to do, they said; no new treatments to try. And her favorite time of year – Christmas – was right around the corner.

My friend told me she had a mission – to make it to Christmas. She told me in no uncertain terms that there was a big, long list of things that had to be done before December 25th. That’s when I came up with a great idea. Let me be your Hanukkah Elf, I joked. But since this is not my holiday, please be patient with me. Hey, I’m trainable and more than willing to do whatever I can to help.

My friend was so organized that despite her fragile health, she had already finished her holiday shopping. Her spare bedroom was filled with all of the toys, sweaters, and assorted holiday tchotchkes that she planned to give to her family and friends. There was a proverbial mountain of gifts to be tagged and wrapped, all under my friend’s watchful eye. Everything had to be “just so” for Christmas. Nothing less than perfect was acceptable. So with scissors in one hand and scotch tape in the other, I went to work. Hours later, the long dining room table was stacked end to end with presents wrapped in shiny red and green holiday paper.

Decorating the tree was the next challenge. There’s a first time for everything, I said. So where do I start? I asked looking at the jumble of lights and boxes of sparkly ornaments on the floor in the den. My friend looked at me from her wheelchair parked on the other side of the room and shook her head in disbelief. You really don’t know how to decorate a Christmas tree?

She silently pointed to a roll of wide ribbon on the coffee table. I picked it up and began to unwind it. Noel, Noel, Noel, I read aloud, admiring the shiny gold letters against the red background. Anchor the ribbon near the top of the tree, my friend directed. Now work the ribbon around the tree to your right, going in between the branches and keep going around and around and around…

Look at me decorating a Christmas tree, I thought to myself. And not doing a bad job of it either. Then I heard a sound behind me. Laughter. I turned around. My friend was laughing so hard that tears were running down her cheeks. What? I asked. Are you okay? What’s so funny?

Who. Is. Leon? My friend gasped between snorts of laughter. I looked up at the tree. The ribbon was wrapped around the tree, perfectly spaced between the branches, from top to bottom. Backwards. My friend continued to laugh. Leon? Leon? Leon?

When December rolls around on the calendar and I see Christmas trees on display, I can’t help but remember my friend. She orchestrated an amazing, picture perfect, last Christmas and even taught a Hanukkah Elf the finer points of holiday tree decoration.
Six years later and memories from that day can still move me to tears, but somehow – and here’s the best part – there’s always a smile on my face at the very same time.

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