In spite of the persistent ache of another Christmas & New Year without Gus, I eased into this past holiday season intent on being “present” instead of rushing through it and skipping town as soon as Christmas Day was over. I sprinkled the house with all of the holiday decor I had not given away and even resolved to watch some of my favorite Christmas movies as I’d always done. I watched two from my holiday collection, It’s a Wonderful Life – my best-loved “be grateful’ flick and The Polar Express, a bittersweet reminder of my absolute favorite day.
When we set out that sunny and crisp Saturday in early December, (December 4, 2004 to be exact) I had no idea the day would come to overshadow our wedding, giving birth to my children or any of the other days I previously thought to be among my best moments. It was one of the first “free” Saturdays after a very long physically and emotionally exhausting year of intense rounds of chemotherapy, operations, a stem cell transplant, radiation and seemingly interminable hours at the hospital and cancer center. If I were a reasonable person I would have stayed home, let everyone take a nap, especially our baby who had just been through hell but I am not and was therefore itching to make a good memory; to do something “normal”. After brunch, the five of us headed to Griffith Park so that Gus could ride a pony like his brothers had done when they were small. I am sure that being only three, Gus had never expressed an interest in seeing much less riding a pony but I had the sense it was something he just had to do. After he’d ridden the ponies we turned our attention to the mini-train a short distance away. We did not mind that it was almost too small for the rest of us or that it went in a giant circle to nowhere as we climbed aboard. When I was sufficiently satisfied that maximum fun had been reached at the park we took a leisurely drive to the movie theater to watch The Polar Express. It was one of Gus’ first times at the movies and he was transfixed by the music and larger than life characters on the giant screen. We ended our day with a belly full of pizza and smiles on our faces.
There is no question that I packed so much into a single day to somehow make up for the year of torture his little body had endured and although we’d go to the movies many more times after and have even greater adventures in the following years, I’ve often wondered what it was that made that day so unforgettable to me. As I watched the movie this year allowing myself to be fully immersed in the memory, I finally realized what it was – freedom. On that day so soon after finishing treatment but still too early to know if his remission would hold I had no choice but to exist somewhere between fear and hope. It was obvious that if I gave in to fear I’d be paralyzed but could just as easily be crippled if I gave in to hope. It was liberating to recognize that there was no one to blame for Gus’ illness; it had not been caused by a poor lifestyle choice nor was it a consequence of neglect, accident or evil intention; and since I was unwilling to believe it was some kind of divine test of faith, I easily relieved myself of the responsibility of trying to figure out what demonstrations of faith were necessary to cure him. I was struck by the idea that I’d been witnessing a miracle my whole life without knowing it. What an amazing feat that cells knew when to become a nose, a mouth, a finger or a tree! The miracle was that everything didn’t go wrong more often than it did. I suppose I adopted the “life is too short” philosophy that day. The guiding principle that has challenged me everyday since to say yes to every opportunity and to find the happiness in each moment knowing that tomorrow is not guaranteed. While I must admit that at times it has been difficult to sustain this new-found perspective, I’ve been most surprised to discover that it is then that my faith takes over. It turns out that I never needed to find much less prove my faith in the universe (God) as it has always been there just below the surface like an electric current waiting for me to plug-in and keep witnessing the magic. Gus, I miss you terribly, know that I can’t wait to see you again because I got your hot chocolate!
Ooh, we got it!
Hey, we got it!
Say, we got it!
(From Gus’ favorite scene in The Polar Express)