One year ago we celebrated Christmas with family. One year ago I didn’t have cancer. One year ago, we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. Little did I know that 6 weeks later I would be diagnosed with breast cancer, my state would go into lockdown, and I wouldn’t be able to hug my extended family nine months and counting.
Our Christmas traditions included last minute shopping while the kids were in school, choosing a tree from our church’s Christmas Tree lot, taking the kids to the secret Santa shop where they could choose their gifts for their families. It included Great Aunt Mickey’s bourbon balls that I started making for the family after Aunt Mickey passed away. It included a Christmas Eve open house at my sister-in-law’s house filled with my husband’s extended family, a hilarious Yankee gift exchange with the adults while the teenagers held their own in the basement with more red faced laughter. It included a cousin gift swap with the youngest cousins who were so excited to buy a gift for someone their age and to receive one in return. It meant ending Christmas Eve attending Mass with my sister-in-law’s family, a quick trip back to her house for my kids to put on their new Christmas pajamas before the hour drive home when we followed Santa on the Norad Santa Tracker. When we came home, the big kids and I would watch A Christmas Story while Daddy put the little kids to bed with promises that Santa will find our house. Christmas Day was filled with presents and laughter, a visit from friends, pie baking, and a trip to Lolo and Lola’s (tagalog for grandparents) for dinner and dinner with my much smaller side of the family.
This year Christmas looked very different. More low key. Less rushed, less running around, and more technology. Instead of our usual yankee gift exchange, we made the hour drive to Baltimore and met the families outside in turn. My chemo curls stuffed in a ski cap, a reminder as to why we still can’t risk large indoor gatherings. We wore our masks, chatted outside, carefully swapped presents and Christmas treats without touching and took our physically distanced and mask wearing photographs which replaced the annual cousin picture this year.
We saw family via zoom where we saw the faces we missed and loved through the screens. The cousins coordinated a separate zoom call where they opened their gifts from each other. Christmas Eve Mass was celebrated in the parking lot of our Church where we lived streamed the Mass from our minivan and then received the Eucharist via drive through because of the downpour. For the first time in our almost twenty years of marriage we made it home from Mass before 9pm. It helps when the commute is 20 minutes instead of an hour.
Dinner was omelettes and egg sandwiches because I forgot to throw a dinner together in the crockpot. While my husband made dinner, I gave the kids their annual Christmas jammies. I was worried that they have outgrown this annual tradition. But when my 14 years old saw the pajamas, he said “Oooh! Christmas jammies? I love this tradition.” We watched Christmas Chronicles as a family and when the little kids went to bed, the teenagers and I cackled over A Christmas Story while my husband finished the wrapping.
As the big kids made their way to bed, just as excited as their younger siblings, my husband quietly made our way to stuff their stockings with hot chocolate bombs, gold chocolate coins, and festive face masks. We placed the gifts underneath the tree. We sat and watched the lights blink on the tree as we reflected how having cancer in a pandemic has been a blessing because of the extra family time it’s given us with our kids. Cancer has been a harsh reminder that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I once worried about how cancer, in the middle of a pandemic, would affect the kids. Now, I see the blessing it’s been as we snuggle in for a weekly date of Stars Wars on Sundays, family movie Fridays, board games, and the occasional puzzle.
Some things don’t change and I was awoken at 3:30am, 5:30am, and 6:30am by a very excited nine year old who had trouble staying asleep and kept creeping into our room to snuggle and talk about Santa. When we moved our tree to a different part of the house because it’s usual spot was taken over by our kindergartner’s distance learning space (thank you pandemic) there was a lot of concerns from the 6 year old of whether or not Santa would be able to find our tree in the front of the house instead of by the fireplace with our stockings. Spoiler: Santa is magic and found our tree without any issues. Our friends came to visit with an outdoor and masked exchange of gifts. Instead of dinner at Lolo and Lola’s we had a pre-ordered meal from the local farm. While the dinner heated up, my husband sang, “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” as we slowly danced in the kitchen. We video called my parents. Now we’re snuggled in for another family Christmas movie.
We miss family. We miss our traditions of seeing them. I don’t miss the rushing around, but I miss the excited anticipation of seeing my nieces and nephews and my in-laws. Christmas Past has been filled with a lot running around, running late, and just plain running. This year, there has been more time to slow down, to reflect, and to be grateful. I would rather spend Christmas with family, to see their faces, to hug them, and to laugh in person. But I am grateful for the unexpected gift of time and extra snuggles with my family. Too soon, the oldest will be headed to college, our life will once again be filled with extracurricular activities, time constraints, and running around. But this year, this dumpster fire of a year, with a pandemic and a cancer diagnosis and treatment, has given me the gift of time. And I’ll take it.