It was Greta’s first Christmas, and she was livin’ the dream. Her pack multiplied from 3 to 12. There was noise and liveliness and laughter. Kyle, 9, and Trey, 6, took her for walks. They ran with her across the hills, something their grandmother could not do. Allison, 13, walked her and gave her hugs. The kids threw tennis balls in the back yard and the dog, untrained but true to retriever instinct, dashed after them. Greta cut short her nap times on the dining room rug to bark at unexpected sounds, race out back to see what the kids were doing and check under the dinner table for spilled scraps.
There was an irregular white circle of hope, in the shape of an occipital and parietal lobe, around the edges of our Christmas holiday. A few weeks earlier, the first MRI taken after Ron’s treatment began at Duke showed that the tumor had actually shrunk! When we sat at the breakfast bar and looked at the results, I threw down the cooking spoon and we danced in the kitchen.
“If the average lifespan after diagnosis is 10 to 12 months, and the tumor is actually shrinking, and we get that 10 months, maybe we could go to Alaska next summer,” I said.
We had wanted to see Alaska. We knew this time, it wouldn’t be our usual active trip. We couldn’t hike or climb or ride bicycles. But we could cruise. We could sit on board as the boat edged past glaciers, and we could watch seals and perhaps polar bears.
“Let’s go for it,” Ron said.
I booked a cruise and made the down payment.
At Christmas, Ron got down on the floor with his grandchildren. Together, they ran the train forward and backward, tooting the horn and watching the engine puff smoke. After the kids tired of the train and drifted away, he stayed and continued running it, switching it back and forth. The boy inside him was reliving the years when long freight trains rumbled past his bedroom, westbound in the night. The whistle would sound down at the crossing and then the rumble would diminish until it could no longer be heard. Ron had grown up to the rhythm of the trains. His father was a railroad man, who had started his career as a telegrapher in the 1930s.
The holiday tired Ron. Cancer fatigue, and the cough. He had to rest often, lying down in the master bedroom while, in the other rooms, cooking and table-setting and children playing continued. Our daughters and sons in-law pitched in, strong and capable, handling whatever needed to be done.
“I’m not much help to you,” Ron said when I went into the bedroom to check on him.
“It’s not your help I want. It’s you.” I sat down on the bed beside him and held his hand.
Twelve of us packed the dining room for Christmas Eve dinner. We laughed and talked, the kids told jokes to each other and called for more mashed potatoes from the main table. Seen from outside the dining room windows, we would have looked like any other American family sitting down to a holiday meal. Nothing special.
Perhaps death always stands by in the wings at every family gathering, but most of the time, we are not aware of its presence. And who would want to be? Given normal health, who would want to sit down and think, Oh, this might be my last dinner, because I might be hit by a truck tomorrow? Serious illness makes you peer into the wings.
On Christmas morning, I sat by Ron while the children did their usual unwrap in less than two minutes, including time for, “Oh, wow!’ and “Cool!” Greta emerged from the frenzy with a new rawhide chew and bows on her collar.
“I wasn’t able to get you anything,” Ron said.
“I don’t care.” I sandwiched his big hand between the two of mine. “I mean that.”
Ron had not been inside a store for months. Soon after the surgery in September to remove the tumor, we had stopped at a supermarket for a few things. I sent him to pick up a six-pack of diet sodas, but when he did not come back, I searched and found him staring at the variety of sodas that filled the aisle. He apologized for not finding the right thing, I picked up the sodas and we left.
I understood later, when I read that brain tumor patients can’t handle too many stimuli. A supermarket customer’s eyes are assaulted by brightly colored competing displays, his ears by canned music, commercials and calls for the bakery on line one. Somehow, a damaged brain cannot tune out the irrelevant and go directly to caffeine-free diet sodas.
Christmas over, we waved the New Jersey half of the family on their way northeast, and the Western Maryland half on their way west. The house quieted. Greta stretched out on the rug to catch up on her naps and the cat curled up on the top bunk in the back bedroom.
I had understood intellectually that even if Ron beat the odds, nothing in our lives would ever again be as it was. That Christmas, the understanding seeped into every fiber.