Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
With snow on the ground and Christmas just two weeks away, I’m in the process of buying presents, looking for the perfect gifts for those on my list. In my faith tradition, the ultimate example of gift-giving comes from the story of the three Magi journeying to visit the Christchild in the manger, bearing gifts worthy of a king: frankincense, gold, and myrrh. While the gifts we receive during the Christmas season are often expected as part of the tradition we share with family and friends, the gifts at other times in our lives are unexpected- like when going through cancer treatment.
It was a season I didn’t anticipate and certainly didn’t celebrate eighteen years ago when I heard, “You have cancer.” Through those eight months of treatment including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation for triple-negative breast cancer, the gifts I received were especially meaningful, generous offerings that brightened my dark time.
Thinking back on those eight months, there were three gifts that stood out.
The First Gift
One of the hardest things for me about my treatment was losing my hair. I felt so exposed and awkward, never realizing how much I hid behind my hair. Not that it was long and luxurious, but just that once it was gone, I felt cast in the spotlight in a way that my shy self didn’t like. On the day that I conceded that my oncologist was right, my hair would come out after infusions with Adriamycin and Cytoxan, I went to my stylist-therapist at the Lovely Lady Salon for my head to be shaved and then to be fitted for a wig. My younger sister, Peggy went with me, and as I often thought was true, I believe it was harder for her than me. The people we love feel so helpless, and perhaps guilty that they’re not going through what we’re experiencing.
Peggy wanted to do something for her older sister. She was looking at the products for women going through cancer. Peggy found a straw hat that had hair pieces attached– so you didn’t need to wear a wig. It would be cooler for the hot September days we were experiencing in North Carolina. The hat had a playful look and made me think of a summer day of fun. She bought it for me and I treasured that hat and the memory of her being with me through that process. The day I wore it to our church service, me who never wore hats, other women joined me by wearing a hat so I wouldn’t feel alone. That hat was a great gift.
Another special gift came from a friend of my mother’s. Martha lived in our home community and she and her husband would do special things for Mama. I knew they worried about her stress as she watched her child go through treatment. Martha sent me one of those boxed cards, like church ladies send, the “Thinking of You” and “Get Well Soon” variety that they faithfully send out the moment they hear about a concern.
In Martha’s card, she wrote a note and included a twenty-dollar bill. She said, “Buy something that you like.” While that may not seem like much, either in the type of card or the amount of money, Martha gave me permission to use it on something I desired. Some days it’s hard to think of something you like when you’re feeling sick from chemo. But on a day when I was better, I took the afternoon to find something special.
I browsed various gift stores and found the perfect use of my twenty dollars: an angel light-catcher made with beautiful blue and gold glass, colors that were warm as well as tranquil, the angel reminding me of being watched over. I kept it in my kitchen window and when I saw the sun shining through, it reminded me of Martha’s concern, her care for Mama that now extended to me. When I was done with treatment, a mother of a boy in my son’s high school class was diagnosed with brain cancer. I didn’t know her well, but enough to wrap up that angel and send it to her. She needed to know she was being watched over. That angel light-catcher was a double blessing– for me and then for her. It was a great gift.
The third gift I received that was special during those difficult days, was a satchel of greeting cards, the boxed kind and those that were individually purchased. I’d had the satchel, and when I started receiving all my cards, I decided to store them there. I treasured each card. Some I’d stick in my book that I’d read to distract me during medical appointments and others were kept in my purse for easy access to comfort me. By placing them for safe keeping in the satchel, it was as if each card came together with the others to form a collective whole of caring. They were as different in design and sentiment as the loving folks who’d sent them. I wrote a blog post entitled “Manna” and included cards as those seemingly minor acts of kindness that were the daily portion you needed to make it through those tough days.
I kept that satchel of cards in my closet for years. Sometimes if I was feeling low, or maybe a bit unloved, I’d pull them out and be amazed at the numbers. I always felt stronger when I returned them to the shelf. The image of the satchel with cards has stayed with me over the 18 years since my treatment. It was a great gift.
I savored those three gifts as well as the others that were generously given during my season of cancer. As we consider the gifts we give to others, whether for Christmas or Cancer, may we all follow that intuitive knowing that says, “Give this, that’s what they need right now.” Through our love for that person, we’ll choose a great gift that will bless them and will bless us.