For Eleanor: Cancer at Christmas

By , December 2, 2011

If you’re reading Mary Oliver’s Twelve Moons as a lunar calendar with me this year, it’s time for another poem, for this month’s first quarter moon, For Eleanor.

For me, this is a heartbreaking poem. My mother, Gertie, died of pancreatic cancer 13 years ago this coming December 27th. All this time later, and that bittersweet (mostly bitter) December and Christmas can easily be recalled by the slightest thing, even a poem.

Mom’s passing actually encompasses two Christmases. In the autumn of 1997 Mom mentioned stomach pains, suspecting giardia. The day after Christmas, she and Dad called with sobering news. She had cancer, it would be terminal, and her doctor had told them that if she wanted to see her children again before she died, we would need to get there immediately. She had delayed telling us until after Christmas day, so as not to ruin our holiday. My brother and sister and I rushed to her side, our families in tow.

She stumped the doctors, and defied their predictions. We finally had to return home to jobs, but Mom assured us we would see each other again. We gathered around her again that summer, Aly stayed with them for awhile in the early autumn, and Mom returned with her to Juneau to attend Aly’s first day of kindergarten. A year and a day after that first announcement, she had gone.

There’s a line in the poem that strikes to my heart: “And men will find the cure for cancer.” I have thought often of the real possibility that new treatments for her particular cancer will someday reduce its lethality. But, it will come too late for so many.

Ironically, Mom refused to die on Christmas day, nor would she allow herself rest on the day after, which was my aunt’s birthday. She hung on until the early hours of the next day. Then, not too long after, that same aunt, no blood relation to Mom, succumbed to pancreatic cancer as well.

Life’s a funny thing, but most of us say that without laughing.

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