One Christmas memory rings clearer than church bells in my mind, not because of the gifts, I couldn’t even be able to tell you a single gift I got, but the fact that a miracle gifted our family a Christmas. The fact that we even had a Christmas through that rough moment in my family’s lives spoke volumes that etched that memory into my brain.
It was Christmas 2009, one of the darkest years of my life. My father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, which explained why his neck had swollen up like he swallowed a golf ball. By the way, to anyone not informed about the stages of cancer, stage 4 is the worst. Like, “get your will together and say goodbye” worst. This, as you could imagine, rocked my world, and not in a good way. It taught me the ultimate lesson, that cancer sucked and how much family mattered. We decided to move to seek help for my father after Arizona hospitals refused to treat him.
“We could treat you if you were an illegal immigrant,” they had informed him, shoving him out the door. This was the equivalent to kicking us while we were down, though I wasn’t informed of this betrayal of our state medical services until later in my life. I’m not sure if my younger brother and I had the choice to move, though we would’ve always chosen to seek help for our father over any other selfish desire in a heartbeat—without hesitation, every time.
So, with only a few backpacks full of clothes, we left our home. We ended up at a motel attached to Queens Hospital in Hawaii, our home for those months during my father’s treatment. Every day, my father was wheeled off to the hospital for chemo and radiation, while my mother homeschooled my brother and me in the motel room. With only textbooks she had found at the library, she taught us the best she could. My brother and I spent weeks, which quickly turned into months, stuck in the motel room by the permanently closed pool—our entrapment in a new and unknown environment. We spent most days reading textbooks, memorizing the state capitals, and playing dominoes to no end. But those hours of stifling boredom was worth it in the long run. We would’ve given up anything just to see our father survive this cancer that was quickly taking over his body.
Unknown to us at the time, the doctors had given my father only three months to live. Though my brother and I weren’t told of this news, we subconsciously understood. Through the pitiful looks the hospital staff gave us, how they showered us in compliments and gifts, even when my mother started to isolate us from our father during the day and cry herself to sleep, I somehow pieced together that something was wrong.
I began to understand the danger when my mother introduced us to D, a friend of my father’s who helped him during his treatment. My brother and I marveled at the desks and cubicles of the office scene, blindly following my mother to meet her. D, a plush, vibrant woman with brown hair, chubby cheeks, and square glasses that framed her brown eyes, rushed my mother and pulled her in a tight hug. D looked over her shoulder to see us, cowering behind our mother like many kids our age would do. She gave us a sad smile and greeted us by name. She then pulled us into a giant hug, one of those awkward hugs from a stranger that lasts a little too long. D called out to her coworkers to come meet us, labeling us as “Don’s kids.” And as people gathered around us, greeting us with sad smiles and pity in their eyes, I had an odd feeling that they knew something that we didn’t: The hard truth of the matter.
Another piece of this large puzzle was during a conference, in which my father was a speaker to discuss his positive outlook on cancer. Staff members ushered us into a large room lined with chairs, as unrecognizable people filled them. Their smiles made my eyes turn away. My father, mother, brother, and I sat on a small stage with an audience of people staring back. I didn’t quite understand what was taking place. The crippling anxiety engulfed me, even though I wasn’t the one giving the presentation. I can clearly remember the looks the audience gave us, looks of pity when they looked at my brother and I. It made me want to scream, to yell at them to stop looking at us in such a manner, it made me feel shameful in a way, though I didn’t know the reason. We were handed gifts as the conference ended.
“Why did they give this to us?” I asked, eyeing the notebook and pens that were in a large, colorful bag.
“They feel sorry.” My mother whispered to us, as we stood and thanked people for coming.
“For what?” My brother asked.
At the end, my dad smiled and held the door open for every person that walked out.
Though the lush greens of the gardens and the vividly bright blue skies surrounding the landscape of the hospital was picturesque, the beauty of nature around us appeared dull in my eyes. I even missed the moment when the Christmas lights started to appear, lining the buildings. The world only revolved around my father as I struggled with trying to say goodbye or imagine a world without him.
Even though the cancer and chemo changed my father’s body, it did not change this spirit. He was the one that cracked the jokes, to the nurses during treatment, to us in the motel room--at all times of the day and in all situations. My mother’s favorite was his impersonation of Boomhauer from King of the Hill. Whenever he would do it, his prideful, jolly, soothing voice changed into the deep mutterings reminiscent of the old cartoon character’s voice. My mother would just explode into a fit of giggles, like a high school girl in love.
“What did Dina say when she fell?” My father asked one time in the motel room, his smile piercing his face and pushing against his swollen, red cheeks.
“What?” We asked, smiles plastered on our faces as well. My father’s smiles and laugh were always contagious, even to this day.
My mother was the first to laugh, her hands banging the table as she hunched over in her chair. My brother rolled around on the floor, his laughs mixing with my mother’s. I didn’t quite get the joke, but I laughed as well.
One clear image of this time stands out in my otherwise foggy memories. My whole family was sitting under a pavilion in the forest green garden of the hospital, dragonflies gracefully flying by, the sun shining down brightly. Sweat made a single trail down one side of my face, the cool, yet warm, breeze making me shiver. We sat in silence, my brother’s eyes on his Game Boy, my eyes on my father as I watched my mother hold him as they sat on a stone bench together, almost as though if she let go he would shatter into a million pieces.
An older woman, dressed in a nice yellow flowered dress, staggered into the pavilion. She struggled with an oxygen tank that she was lugging behind her, an ugly green oval-shaped breathing machine I had seen quite often during our stay. Her bald head shined in the sunlight, matching my father’s own head. It was shaven clean once he got fed up with the chunks of hair he found nightly on his pillow, like chocolate mints at a hotel, except less sweet. I instantly knew she was a cancer patient here as well.
Upon seeing her, my father struggled to stand, leaning on my mother as she supported his torso. He staggered over, my mother ghosting behind him, prepared for the moment he would fall, though he never did. He smiled, his swollen cheeks pressing upon his eyes, creating small crescents. In a raspy whisper, he asked if she needed help, though he started to guide her without waiting for an answer. I watched them walk to another bench, my father sitting with her and talking, discussing their shared uphill battle with cancer, their shared enemy. My mother was like my father’s shadow, never leaving his side. My eyes had filled up with tears at the sight, that one moment speaking to my father’s whole personality. Even in his weakest moment, he went out of his way to help someone else in need.
During those long months, my family struggled to find an escape from this reality, from going on adventures to get our mind off of my father struggling to survive, to concentrating on smaller tasks. My mother focused on hobbies throughout those months. One week it was creating balloon animals out by the pool. My brother and I watched, eyes wide in awe as she contorted the balloons into shapes of animals. Another week she focused on crocheting hats. She gifted the first crocheted winter cap to my father. He smiled when he received it, tears filling his eyes at the colorful yarn creation. After that, my mother crocheted hundreds of hats and donated them to the hospitals for cancer patients. All the colorful hats were adored by all of the fellow recipients, from young to old.
My mind didn’t register the holiday’s fast arrival. The Christmas decorations that littered the hospital halls and gardens were only an afterthought, the usual joyful spirit that would spark at the sight was lost in the endless days and nights at the motel. My mind only focused on my father as I tried to absorb every moment I could with him, memorize every feature, every trait, and permanently burn it into my memory. When Christmas Eve finally arrived, I didn’t feel the excitement and glee that, in the past, would have hit me like a train. It was only a sorrowful glee, I suppose.
That night, I helped my mother carry my father to go see these beautiful Christmas lights decorated around Town Hall. Tall decorations filled the lawns. Inflatable snowmen littered lawns that never had and never will feel the bitter cold of snow in this tropical winter wonderland. My brother, with his gleeful childish smile, bounced up to Santa Claus that night. As he sat on Santa’s lap, the bearded man asked the same question he had for the hundreds of kids earlier that day; my brother wished for our father’s cancer to be gone. We returned back to the motel, the bare cream-colored walls void of any holiday spirit. We went to bed that night not expecting to hear the clopping sounds of Santa’s reindeer on the roof, nor the store-bought cookies to be gone.
We awoke like every other day. The day was utterly normal and we were fine with that. I was fine with that. As my mother plotted our adventurous day and my father was wheeled away yet again, the day was as magical as any other day had been that month, in the sense that it was not spectacular in any such way, though, my brother and I didn’t mind much.
My mother, brother, and I spent the day at the nearby library, roaming the endless rows of bookshelves that seemed to reach the ceiling. The hard dark red carpet provided momentary comfort as I camped out in the comic book section. My mind was wrapped around the fictional worlds illustrated on those pages, temporarily making me forget my own harsh reality, but as with everything good, that escape wouldn’t last.
The walk back was uneventful, mostly filled with chatter of the day’s activities, the study agenda, and the plan for that day’s dinner. Just outside the door, my mother stopped us, telling us to wait a moment. Puzzled, my brother and I stood, without question, as she peeked in. I saw two shadows dart past the window, not really paying much mind to it. After a moment, she ushered us in, and to our surprise, everything was different.
The once bland room, filled with a plain couch, coffee table, and small dining table, was now decorated to the nines. Red and green cloths covered the coffee table. A paper Christmas tree hung on one wall, underneath a river of presents that spilled out onto the couch. The small dining table, where we sat eating countless ham sandwiches and microwave dinners, was now cluttered with a feast, dishes and dishes of scrumptious food and a large turkey greeting us from the center, the star of the show. My father stood in front of us, his bald head now covered with a funny trucker hat with what looked like a mullet flowing out. D rushed us for hugs. A booming, “Merry Christmas!” left both hers and my father’s lips.
Tears filled my eyes, I was in shock and awe, my eyes darting to each part of the room. It felt so surreal, unreal even. The once gray world that I had grown accustomed to, now filled with bright color. It was overwhelming.
My father and D explained that D had gathered presents from around her office, collected donations of toys and food for who she dubbed “a family in need,” though none of the presents meant more than my father’s presence.
Three months came and went with only smiles and laughs, then another three months. Then, three years, with no funerals and only happy memories. My father being a strong powerful ox that kept me going on the path of life. Now, eight years later, I call home every now and again, the pain of living away from home taxing, as my father’s jokes keep me laughing.
This essay is dedicated to my father, who’s my idol, my mother, who’s my best friend, as well as my Aunt Amber, Uncle Herk, and Uncle Jim, who weren’t as fortunate as my father and lost their lives to cancer. They are/were amazing people.