By Abigail Johnston
I love the holidays. The family togetherness, the food, the exchanges of gifts, the celebration of what God has given us and the sacrifice of His Son, it’s all magical to me. Of course having my birthday in the mix, on the Winter Solstice, is also something to look forward to every year, but don’t get me started on the whole Santa thing. I literally start planning for the following Christmas in January each year when it comes to gifts and I’m always on the lookout for the perfect gift for the people on my list, which grows and grows every year much to my husband’s chagrin. That the end of the year culminates in getting to see people happy about what I’ve selected, that’s the highlight for me.
Since 2017, when I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC), I’ve started to see holidays differently. I vividly recall the first celebrations following my diagnosis when I struggled with both wanting to go overboard in making memories and also wanting to simply withdraw from everything. The thought that this holiday, this birthday, this celebration, this time, this will be the last time, is always in the back of my mind. I still find myself staring at the people I love, during holidays or otherwise, trying to memorize their faces, fixing the memories in my brain so … what? So that I will remember after I die?
My logical brain asserts itself and is pretty scornful of this fanciful notion that my efforts mean anything. Does me fixing this point in time in my memory mean anything now? I’ll be the one leaving a chair empty at the table at a time in the not so distant future. What does it matter whether there is a celebration this year or next when any one of them will be my last?
Sometimes I think my logical brain is a bit bitchy or maybe just angry.
No, I don’t have multiple personalities, but it helps me to cast these ambivalent feelings as actual characters with different points of view to better make sense of the whole. This living with two contradictory ideas/feelings at once is confusing. I’m alive, yet dying, happy, yet intensely sad, in excruciating pain, yet content, horribly nauseous, yet hungry for the mouth watering food, smiling, yet
yearning for my bed. I have to carry all of
these contradictory urges all at once.
It can be exhausting.
I ruminate over what my kids will remember and then frantically take pictures to preserve what I think is important. I secret away notes and letters and keepsakes, knowing logically that my boys likely won’t fully grasp their significance. I talk to all the people who I think need to know something about what I want after I’m gone, knowing full well I’m the one who cares about these things, not others.
How do you reconcile wanting to celebrate and be present with the very real fear that you will be erased, replaced, become irrelevant in the lives of those you care about the most? This anticipatory grief amongst the very real festivities of the holidays is mind boggling/numbing/blowing.
There are people in my life who have pulled back from me or created conflicts to separate themselves from me because of this, I think. Everyone deals with anticipatory grief in different ways. Courage requires one response, safety another. What you choose reveals something. What I choose reveals something. What results becomes a legacy of intimacy created by opportunities taken or separation because of opportunities missed. How many more opportunities can there be?
And that’s all before we add COVID-19 into the mix.
I talk to others living with MBC who are contemplating risking exposure and likely death from COVID-19 in light of the fact that due to our truncated life expectancy, this holiday season may well be our last. How do you weigh all the risks/benefits when attempting to make decisions amongst so many unknowns?
Absent a crystal ball (and I need one of those), I think we have to make the best decisions with what we have to work with, right now. I think we have to focus on the knowns to make decisions, not make ourselves crazy with attempting to contemplate the unknowns. I think we have to be able to take responsibility for the things we can influence and just pitch the rest.
Not an easy task.
So not an easy task.
I have discovered that to feel settled about my plans and my decisions, I do have to shrink my level of care for those around me to the ones who matter the most. Those who I have genuine connections to; those who are focused on making memories with me. That means I have to let go of many of the defaults of years past, not an easy thing. That means I have to be more picky and more intentional and more settled (i.e., not running around with a million projects) to be able to have the emotional capacity to focus on what matters most.
These decisions are fraught with so many pitfalls and worries and feelings, present and past. It is a struggle and causes often sleepless nights in the lead up to the holidays; however, I know that when I put in some work to think this through rather than going with the flow, the holidays contain the people and elements that matter most to me in the end.