Two years ago, I learned that one of my relatives was diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer. It was determined that he was terminal and probably would not make it past Christmas. I was never particularly close to this relative, but terminal illnesses do a twisting kind of thing to the mind that make you remember the moments where you were close and could have been even closer. So, the memories played like a movie reel in my mind of when this relative lived with my family and I and I tormented him as a bratty child bugging him to play games with me. I remembered being given the responsibility of his flower girl in Hong Kong in a puffy pink dress. I remembered my Dad and me spending the entire day with him and his wife out at Universal Studios in California in the beaming sunshine and daring each other to go on the fastest and wildest of rides. Even more so, terminal illnesses back you in a corner making you think that you lost the chance to be closer so you try to make up for the perception of loss by making as many moments and memories to hold on to just before that person is no longer here on earth. So, that is exactly what we did. To make new memories to remember and hold on to, my family and I jetted off to California to visit this relative and his wife for what was deemed by doctors as his last Christmas.
I had heard that he was going bald from the start of treatments to try to combat the cancer. I knew exactly what I wanted to get him for Christmas; A handmade hat from one of my friends who was famous for her knitted hats from the thickest and finest of yarns. After much decision with my hat lady friend, I finally decided on a swirl of colors thick hat for him to keep his head warm and spirits even warmer and more hopeful.
Our first stop in sunny California was to see him and his wife. In a stark white room that was badly in need of color, personality, and light, we all crowded and stood like soldiers encircling him. We hugged his thinning body. We plastered on bright smiles. We took pictures. We filled up the awkward pauses with laughter, jokes, small talk, and really anything and everything that did not touch terminal illness with a ten-foot pole. I gave him the hat. He bony fingers brushed mine when he grasped on to it. The hat was too big for him, but he dutifully put it on to try to please me and everyone else.
Before we left, we all lifted up our filled up plastic cups to wish each other happiest of holidays. I rang out: “Cheers!”
Everyone beamed with big smiles and his smile was the biggest of all. In my experience, there is something about the word ‘cheers.’ Almost all the time, it melts away tension and a big grin or smile takes over somber faces. I think it is because ‘cheers’ is like the word ‘cheese’ where the lines on our faces cannot help but lift up rather than down. He knew that this was going to be his last Christmas. We knew that this was going to be his last Christmas. Some could even say that we all knew that we were pretending that everything was okay when it was not okay, but maybe it was not really pretending. Maybe it is just trying and creating new and happy memories in unhappy and even painful reality. Maybe it is just trying to ring out and find the ‘cheers’ and positivity in pain and in the face of adversity and when the cloud of negativity looms overhead.
Just a couple days after Christmas and just before the New Year, he had died. He had made it to Christmas. He had not made it to the New Year. All of us had made it in time to be together and say and ring in ‘cheers’ one last time, making a bittersweet memory imprinted in my mind. Sometimes, the holidays can be the hardest time of the year where there is the flood of good and bad memories. It can be the time of the year where we think about those who are missing and we end up missing these people the most. Most definitely, it is that time of year that we find and make magic and as much ‘cheers’ as we can muster as we gather and try to come together.
‘Cheers’ illicits joy and happy memories in the face of unhappy or daunting reality. When have you been in a painful or hurtful time that you tried to overcome with creating new and happy memories? Have you ever noticed that the word ‘cheers’ naturally brings a smile to our faces?
This Christmas and in the days to come that ends 2019 and starts 2020, I wish you and all your loved ones “Cheers!”
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,