I've never been one to write up an annual Christmas letter. For starters, anyone that I'd send it to already knows the big things that have happened in our lives throughout the year. And, let's face it, arts teachers spend every waking moment of November and December getting ready for their holiday performances, so we don't exactly have time to compose long missives (I have a music teacher friend who writes a letter each year and sends it out... in January!). And then there's the whole issue of the format of the letter. Should it be just a bullet list of the major events of the year? A paragraph about each of us? One of my aunts sets the standard quite high - each year her letter wraps up the year in a lovely theme based on something that's happened recently (my favorite was the one about how they'd been so busy that they'd managed to put the lights on the tree but no ornaments - amazingly she tied this to the theme of her children being grown and doing things differently than she expected, yet things turning out wonderfully regardless). And so rather than have to put that much thought into it, I've never written a Christmas letter.
And yet this year... well, this year feels quite different. So here's my attempt at our Frasier Family Christmas Letter.
There are times when things change dramatically, yet these changes happen so slowly that you barely notice them occurring. I'm not sure when John started losing energy. I just know that it started small - he'd mow the lawn, then come in and watch TV rather than edging the driveway. He'd cook dinner, then leave the kitchen a mess. At the time it just annoyed me. Why did he leave all those dishes for me? And Why on earth does he just keep throwing laundry on the guest bed instead of putting it away? I didn't pay it much attention.
And then one Saturday in late January he said he was going to the Urgent Care a few blocks from our house. He'd been nauseated for a few days and it wasn't getting any better. I asked if he needed me to go with him, but he declined. So I spent the next few hours cleaning the house until he came home. I had my back to the door, so when he came in I asked what they said. When I turned around I found him moaning on his hands and knees on the floor, saying that they told him to go to the ER. And out the door we went.
Once at the hospital we discovered that John had a kidney stone. I watched my husband writhe in pain as they continued to increase his medicine in an attempt to get it under control. Days later we were sitting at the urologist office, where John was told that yes, he had a kidney stone and yes, it was moving (he said he already knew that - he could feel it).
And so our spring became the spring of kidney stones. John eventually learned to tell the when one started and how far it had traveled based on the location of his pain. We think he passed several over time, but then eventually over the summer he said the pain changed. He did some reading on the internet (the amount of information available at our fingertips is a wonderful and yet dangerous thing) and figured he had hemorrhoids from the act of pushing out the kidney stones. So he slept on a heating pad. He drank more water. And he started taking more and more pain medicine each day.
I guess I always suspected that it wasn't hemorrhoids. But remember, the changes were very gradual. In August we went to the beach with my extended family. John played in the water, splashing around on a boogie board. But at night he'd eat dinner, then go to bed early. He'd toss and turn, never really getting a good night's sleep. In September we went to his favorite restaurant to celebrate his birthday, only to find that sitting in the wooden chair caused him so much pain that he cut the meal short. In October we didn't schedule our annual camping trip; instead, we stayed in a hotel at Myrtle Beach for a weekend. That Sunday we went to Broadway at the Beach. We had to stop five times as we shopped so John could rest - the act of walking around wore him out. At that point I think we both knew something was wrong. He thought it was just that he wasn't getting enough sleep and said he'd make an appointment with a doctor when we got back to town. But that week he said he was feeling better and didn't call.
Fast forward to mid-November. One Saturday as I was preparing to take a day trip with my aunt to do some Christmas shopping with my parents John got up and told me that the pain was so bad that he was going back to Urgent Care. I was relieved, as I'd been urging him to go to the doctor for months. Again, I asked if he needed me to go with him. He urged me to go have a good day and he'd let me know what the doctor said. They gave him some medicine and promised to refer him to a gastroenterologist. During the week he told me he thought he was anemic, and that Thursday he sent me a text saying he was going back to Urgent Care on his lunch break to talk about the anemia. They did some tests, including blood work, and promised to get back to him.
That Saturday I was halfway through training to renew my CPR/First Aid/AED certification at school when John sent me a text:
I'm sorry to bother you with this, but Urgent Care called back and said my hemoglobin is critical and I need to go to the ER right away. I don't want to go. What should I do?
I think my reply was one word: GO. I met him there.
If you're a fan of Doctor Who you know that The Doctor refers to time as "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff." Time lost all of its usual constraints for me during the third week of November. I know what happened, I just can't always place it in any kind of order, so:
- That same day John was admitted to the hospital. Yes, he was severely anemic. They needed to address the anemia, but they also needed to determine what was causing the blood loss.
- Over the course of 72 hours they gave him 5 units of blood and an iron transfusion.
- Monday evening they did a colonoscopy and endoscopy. Afterward when the doctor walked into the waiting room I could tell by his expression what he was going to tell me. John has cancer.
- At some point Tuesday they did an MRI and CT scan to determine the exact size and location of the tumor, as well as if the cancer had spread.
- Wednesday night we learned that John has stage IVa rectal cancer. He has a sizable tumor and the cancer has spread up through the lymph nodes but hasn't spread to any other organs.
- Thursday John was released from the hospital, and...
- ...Friday he was in the clinic for his first round of chemo.
We have a plan of action: 4-6 rounds of chemo (which we receives every other Monday - we did round 3 this week) in an attempt to shrink the tumor and attack the cancer cells in his lymph nodes, then radiation, then surgery to remove the tumor, then 6-12 rounds of chemo. That's the easy part to say. As for other plans, it's almost impossible to make any. Right now we're going day to day, waiting to see how he feels and how much energy he has each day. Some days are better than others. It's always harder for him on a chemo week. I don't think he realized how tiring it would be for his body to try to fight this. But he sleeps MUCH better than he had been for the last 6 months or so. He says he feels better than he has in quite some time. His hemoglobin has doubled since that first day in the hospital, and we can see a notable difference in his coloring. As for appetite, he hardly has one and has lost 50-60 lbs since he was in the ER for the kidney stone last winter.
So what does this have to do with Christmas?
I know that Christmas different for different people. For some, it's a time of gifts and celebrations with loved ones. For others, it's a time to see the wonder of the season through a child's eyes. For me, Christmas has always been a time of miracles. The virgin birth. The angels visiting the shepherds and singing God's praise. The wise men following a star to present gifts to God's Son. The knowledge that the small baby whose birth we celebrate would one day die for our sins.
Miracles abound at Christmas, this year I'm just more aware. The miracle of modern medicine took a devastating diagnosis and changed it to a message of hope - by all accounts John should be successfully finished with his treatment in time to have a very happy Thanksgiving next year. Friends and family daily remind me of God's love for us, from hugs and kind words to providing meals so I don't have to worry about cooking several nights a week. As we inched closer and closer to our school's holiday concert I grew more and more grateful for those meals. People regularly ask me about John and I'm blessed to reply that John is still John - even keeled, ready to share random trivia, and above all, optimistic. I've been far more shaken by all of this than he has, and I'm encouraged by his quiet faith.
But mostly, I'm amazed at this time of year by the miracle of God's unending love for us. Even in my moments of deepest despair, as I begged my Father not to take this man from me, I knew that even if He did it would be part of His plan. I cannot imagine going through this without the knowledge of God's miraculous grace and mercy, shining on us through the birth and death of His Son. And so I end with the second half of a verse from What Child is This?, one of my favorite carols:
Nails, spears shall pierce Him through,
the Cross He bore for me, for you,
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the Babe the Son of Mary.