Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Gift

A few days ago, I searched my mind, in vain, for the memory of my most cherished Christmas gift. I’ve never been a good or gracious receiver of gifts; more often than not, the packages under the tree, once stripped of their merry glittering paper and spirals of ribbon, have not quite measured up to my definition of magic. I’ve known the reality of holiday let-down since I was about eight years old. Were my expectations too high, or were the offerings under the tree really as mundane and unimaginative as they ultimately felt?

Finally, though, reading a friend’s journal entry about the wonderful gift of snow for Christmas, in a southern town where such an event is truly magical…the memory washed over me in a wave. And I wonder how I could have forgotten. My most wonderful and treasured Christmas gift? My life.

Ten years ago this Christmas, I was walking down one of the most frightening paths a woman can follow. After years of palliative treatments for severe "female problems," I was scheduled to go under the knife on December 14, 1994. My doctor had determined, from an ultra-sound, that I had a huge mass surrounding my right ovary. The dreaded "C" word had come up in the consultation. I asked if he could avoid doing major surgery by getting a biopsy first; Eldad (my doctor), sweet man that he was, looked truly distressed as he replied quietly, "If it IS cancer, and you rupture it, then you spread it…" There was no choice but to submit to major surgery. And no way of knowing, once I was put under, what news I would hear on awaking.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to know you are going to die. I don’t have any idea how I would live, possessing that information. But I DO know what it’s like to be weeks, days, hours away from possibly facing that reality. And I know I was scared to death. The only thing I could do, from the day the surgery was scheduled in my doctor’s office, was try to go on as if I believed there was nothing to worry about. That I didn’t feel sick enough to have a cancer that large eating away at my vitals. To function on a brave, logical, calm level that never appeared to consider the possibility of impending doom. To wear this façade, fragile as an eggshell, feeling like it could shatter at any moment from the pressure of the panic beneath. And to have this thing… this heavy, dark shadow, with no substance, yet packing the weight of an elephant, constantly looming on the edges of my consciousness.

Here in Oregon, west of the Cascades, it snows maybe once a year; many years, it doesn’t snow at all. And if it does, in its capricious Oregon-weather way, it rarely falls before Christmas, when the wonder and beauty of it would balance out the transportational inconvenience. A week before my surgery in 1994, it snowed. We had just finished hanging our outdoor lights. We had acquired a brand-new holiday novelty---Christmas lights designed to hang in icicle-like drapes from the eaves. Ours was the only house in the neighborhood to display this new-fangled marvel that year.

Snow. Magical Christmas snow. I bundled up and toted the video camera outside (one of those huge ones that you needed a bearer to carry around for you). Lacking a sled, husband broke down a cardboard box; we slogged to the top of the street that ran past our house, and skidded back down, mostly off the box—two forty-year-old adults, not a kid in sight, hooting with laughter, sliding down the street again and again. Everything about that snow was a little brighter, a little lovelier…there was a nearly hysterical edge to my determination to make merry that evening.

The elephant that was the shadow of my unknown prognosis, followed me everywhere, nudging me to enjoy while I could. There was that real possibility, unvoiced and barely acknowledged, that this could be the last snow I would ever see.

A week later, as I lay struggling to shake off the anaesthetic fog after surgery, the first thing I was aware of was Eldad, standing by my shoulder and saying, over and over, "Wake up! You don’t have cancer. Do you hear me? You don’t have cancer! Everything is all right!" until I worked my paralyzed mouth into what I thought was a smile, looked him in the eye and nodded my head. As I drifted back into oblivion, I caught a glimpse of the elephant heading out the door.

That Christmas, I could barely stand upright long enough to decorate the tree. Last minute jaunts to the mall were given up in favor of resting in the recliner wrapped in a cozy throw. Husband spoiled me mercilessly with a huge pile of presents under the tree on Christmas eve. I felt weak, tired, and puny, but it was, hands-down, the best Christmas morning I can remember. Raising my head off the pillow, the only thing hanging over it the feather-light knowledge that this would not be my last Christmas after all.
This is my contribution to judith heartsong's December Artsy Essay contest...


  1. Lisa, This was a beautiful entry. It brought tears to my eyes!.  Merry Christmas .

  2. I am so glad that you are alright. I don't know how i would have handled that. I am glad that it all worked out. Merry Christmas.


  3. Beautifully written, as always.  Your readers are certainly glad about the ending.

  4. Oh, Lisa. So powerful.  Merry Christmas, girl. Nothing will ever top that one though.

  5. You, my dear sweet friend, just perfectly wrote about MY Christmas last year.  It was a like I was writting your wonder we get along so well.  I hope you win the contest but even if by some off beat chance you don't, remember that you have already won.


  6. Dear Lisa, thank you for sharing that powerful and, in the end, joyful story. I am grateful that you had a good doctor, and a supportive husband, and a terrific happy ending. I loved your sledding adventure.... sometimes letting our inner child out is the best medicine.
    This is truly a marvelous gift, and I am so glad that you decided to share it with us.
    My very best to you for a joyful and merry Christmas.

  7. That's a precious memory and so well written!  I am grateful all went well, because I now have you in my life dear girl! Stay well and Merry Christmas, and many, many more!  Lisa

  8. Great Entry! Good Luck!

  9. Hello Lisa-
    I hope you are happy now; you made me cry on Christmas!! LOL Very great story and I have read it three times now. I especially liked the part on "elephant heading out the door". How creative you are with words, but so true when faced with something like that. The scare with my Mother (which is still there) is like living with a huge elephant in the room/house that refuses to leave.

    Thank you again for sharing Lisa.


  10. Wonderful, just wonderful!

    Merry Christmas.

  11. Beautiful story.  Merry Christmas Lisa!

  12. Nothing like a wake up call reminding us to live life, don't talk about it-- go out and do it...  great entry!  Merry Christmas, buddy!   Kristi

  13. This is a very powerful story.  It brought back a lot of memories.  I had the same scare two years ago and underwent a complete hysterectomy.  I didn't have cancer, but the effects of the surgery sent me down a difficult path, and I'm just now starting to feel like myself.  I love the metaphorical nature of your writing.  You should be very proud of this essay.  Theresa Williams.  

  14. Life in all its struggles, giggles, and glee, is definitely the best gift of all. This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing it. :-) ---Robbie