In the movie “Free Guy”, starring Ryan Reynolds, Reynolds’ character wakes up each morning, with the exact scenario, saying “good morning” to his goldfish, Goldie. And he goes through his entire day repeating everything the same, the next, the day after that, and so on. The movie, very reminiscent of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day,” but with a very modern twist.
When November comes around, I experience a similar cycle, or at least my mind does. You see, in November, of 1988 to be exact, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s “Disease”, now called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I will never understand the relevance to whether it is called disease or lymphoma because both are bad, and really, neither word relates to being what it actually is, cancer.
Anyway, my repeating cycle is this, my diagnosis was confirmed just before Thanksgiving. Over the next several months, I underwent diagnostic procedures to figure out just how bad my cancer was. That’s right, over several months means this was over the holiday season.
Up until this point in my life, I looked at Thanksgiving as a time to get together with family, and the Christmas holiday for gatherings and gift giving, joyous times. But in 1988, that all changed. I was angry. And though not an actively practicing Christian, I still had my faith, which would be challenged, as we were supposed to be excited to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But I was at a crossroad. Wanting to rely on my faith, I approached my minister, to help me understand why I had to go through such a trial at one of the most beautiful times of the year. Instead, this “minister” blew me off, saying he had no time for me as the Advent season was upon us, and it was a very busy time in the church. I was on my own, turned away from a representative of the God I am supposed to believe in. I needed help. But there was no time to give me any help.
This is where I can definitely say, I lost my love for not just this holiday season, but for all holidays. I was left to struggle alone with my emotions and questions in a time of year that was all about “getting together.” But in 1988, cancer was still not a word discussed freely, or at least without the look of pending doom. I was alone.
Now, as many are frequent to offer this advice, “but Paul, that was only one year, just get over it.” Word of advice, cancer survivors REALLY HATE THAT EXPRESSION! But that holiday season, and because I was still going through treatments, the following holiday season, my love for holidays was gone. There were opportunities that I could have gained those feelings back, but without the spiritual guidance, the motives were without feeling and passion. I would just go through the motions of the holidays, so that others could enjoy the holidays.
Every year, November would roll around, and I would find myself thinking of this anniversary, wishing I could change the way I thought of the holidays.
I truly thought that once my daughters came into my life, my feelings would change about the holidays. My daughters were innocent, and the joys and expressions each Christmas day were truly genuine, how could someone not feel that, want that? As I had done prior to my daughters, I found myself needing a distraction from the thoughts that annually were in my head, “this is the time of year, the worst days of my life,” which of course I could no longer claim, especially blessed with my daughters, but this feeling was there.
I found myself working EVERY holiday, not just Christmas, but all holidays, including Father’s Day, putting off the morning gift giving until I got home from work. All the other holidays and my birthday, soon meant nothing to me again. And even with divorce, in an attempt to keep conflict to a minimum when it came to custody, I surrendered ALL holidays to their mother, instead opting for days close to the holidays.
My daughters do not know about the struggles I have during this season. All they have known, when they were young, I was working when Santa delivered their presents, and older, after the divorce, they will see me after the holidays. My daughters know about my health struggles because of my cancer treatments from 33 years ago, but very little about the beginning of this journey.
That’s right, it was 33 years ago this month. I officially count my survivorship at 31 years, recognizing the day of my final treatment as my anniversary date, others their diagnosis date. 33 years is nothing to sneeze at. I have gotten to witness so much not just in the advances of treating cancer from better diagnostics and treatments, but my gosh, I could not be more blessed to have two of the best children anyone could ever hope for.
There is still hope, and I really do want to be able to, learn to love this time of year again. One of my daughters promises “lots of grandchildren.” In 2008, I was near death with a heart condition caused by my treatments, and I never thought I would see my daughters even graduate, yet, here I am. I have goals that at one time were unthinkable, and as I approach each milestone, my hope continues to grow. With one daughter graduating this school year, the other the next year, my milestones are simple, college education for them, hopefully marriage, and yes, grandchildren. I am that close, and I can see it.
My life changed in November of 1988, there is no doubt. My cancer does not define who I am. But I am who I am today, because of my cancer. I am eternally grateful for four decades of cancer survivorship and I will be grateful for hopefully the years to come. And it is with that hope, and the milestones I am looking forward to, that perhaps I might find that peace finally in November and December being “the most wonderful time of year.” Better late than never.