Marloe Esch hunts for the perfect Christmas tree.
Last December, I walked into work at the cancer center chemo clinic early one morning and was confronted with a miniature Christmas tree sitting at the nursing station. Ornaments dangled from its faux evergreen branches, a star sat sparkling on its peak, and at its base a red skirt flared out over the counter. The little tree's unassuming stature could easily be missed in the hustle and bustle of a busy chemotherapy clinic, but it stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly, it was once again Christmas Eve of 2014, just a year before, and instead of being at the clinic for my job as an oncology RN, I was there to receive my weekly chemo treatment.
That year, my brother was visiting from California for the holidays, and it would be the first time that I'd see him since I'd been diagnosed over the summer. It would be the first time he'd see me looking like a cancer patient. December 24th was a chemo day that couldn’t be missed, but I had suggested that he come with me and my husband for my treatment. To lighten the mood, I insisted we all wear silly Christmas sweaters; how could they say no? We braved the brisk Wisconsin weather and arrived to my appointment wearing knitted poinsettias, snowflakes and reindeer. At some point during my treatment I decided that I wanted a spontaneous holiday portrait, and so I nudged the guys over to the counter where a Charlie Brown-ish tree stood. The three of us circled around the homely but charming tree and smiled for the click of the camera, my chemo IV pole strategically placed in the background. If I had to have cancer with Christmas, I wanted it hidden behind a Christmas tree.
Christmas trees have always been my favorite part of the holiday season. If there’s one thing my husband can expect every December, it’s to be taken on the annual Christmas tree hunt. I grew up tromping through Christmas tree farms with my family each year, and I’ve carried this tradition into adulthood. There’s a certain charm in the whole ordeal, from beginning to end: scouting out the perfect one and watching my husband kneel in mud and snow to ceremoniously cut it down (“chop it down” sounds more romantic, but hasn’t happened yet), dragging it into the house and adorning it with an array of homemade ornaments, inhaling the sharp, fresh scent of pine with every passing. There’s even a certain satisfaction in the sap that gets stuck to my mittens, and in the stray needles I find in the carpeting for months afterward.
I usually love finding festive trees in unexpected places, but this time, and this tree, was different. Instead of pleasant surprise, I felt like I’d received the equivalent of an emotional gut-punch. Suddenly, I was confused — I thought I’d gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing my cancer experience. My chemotherapy days seemed like eons ago, and in the grand scheme of things, I felt like I’d made it out safely on the other side. That is, despite having a few less body parts and a few more scars. But as quick as the shutter snap of a camera, the sight of that tree transported me back into the chemo chair again. Once more, I was a cancer patient trying to figure out how I was going to get through the holidays without breaking down.
That Chemo Christmas season, the “Happy New Year!” sentiments that rang out seemed more mocking than joyful. I was not convinced that a new year would hold any reprieve for me. I had bitterly resigned myself to the fact that while my friends would be celebrating joyful life events like getting married and having babies in the upcoming year, I would be saying goodbye to my breasts and hello to hormone therapy and hot flashes. While their husbands would be on diaper duty, my husband would be on (surgical) drain duty. And while their bath-time would include rubber duckies and counting the toes of little ones, bath-time for me was going to require the help of my husband, since I wouldn’t be able to reach my own toes in the shower while recovering from my mastectomy surgeries. Cancer had ruined 2014, and as far as I could see, it was going to ruin 2015 as well. I felt that I had no choice but to consider the upcoming year lost, again, to cancer.
So, there I was one year later, standing in my nursing scrubs trying to shake off this flashback. How did I get thrown into such a hellish emotional upheaval again so instantly? This unexpectedly traumatic trip down memory lane had been triggered by a silly little plastic tree that had clearly left a big impression. Taking a deep breath and blinking back tears, I tried to return to the present moment. I refused to let my initial reaction get the better of me — Christmas trees were what I loved about this time of year! At the heart of every tree, I told myself, there is family and tradition, strength and love. And above all, Christmas trees are a way to bring a little bit of hope indoors.
Evergreens have been used in the celebration of winter festivals for hundreds of years. The term “evergreen” itself evokes the idea of life within barren winter conditions. Both branches and whole trees were brought into homes during the winter solstice as a reminder of the warmer days ahead, and the green that would inevitably come with spring. I am not a religious person, but I appreciate the significance of bringing an evergreen tree indoors to celebrate life during the deepest, darkest, coldest part of the year. It's a reminder not to give up hope in a seemingly hopeless season, much like I needed to be reminded not to give up hope in the dark of my treatment, and much like I try to help remind those that I care for as a nurse not to give up hope during their darkest, coldest moments. On that Chemo Christmas Eve of 2014, I made room for that sparse little tree in our portrait because no matter how crappy I felt, I wanted to capture the promise it symbolized in the moment — it’s cold and dark out now, but green survives. I will survive.
Another holiday season is here, and I wonder if that little tree will again be coming out of storage to take its place at the nursing station this year. If it does, it will be a humble symbol of hope holding its own amid the craziness that ensues in our busy clinic. Perhaps, for most, it will go unnoticed. I, however, will surely once again be taken back to my Chemo Christmas. Although it was a time filled with uncertainty and struggle, I sought comfort in my family and in tradition, finding enough strength and love within each to get me through. Even during my personal season of darkness, I never stopped searching for the smallest hint of green in a world with cancer — and with that green, a promise of life.
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How do holiday memories affect you? Do they remind you of the struggles you had or give you hope as you continue your treatment? Share your comments below.