065: Christmas Stories 4: Cancer Claus

This is the 4th of 7 Christmas stories. Click here to read: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5Part 6. Part 7.

AND — if in the year-end rush you missed our earlier Hanukkah Week series, you can jump back to enjoy that here: Part 1 of 5 for Hanukkah.

    On our 4th Day of Christmas, we turn to the somber side of the holiday season for many people, each year. Like everything in this series, the following story comes from the writer’s real life — written years ago as this particular writer wrestled with his tough situation as a young patient in a cancer ward, facing an unexpectedly urgent date with a surgeon.
    At that time, this writer struggled spiritually.
    Now, he’s known in many parts of the world as the Rev. Rod Reinhart, a Chicago-area Episcopal priest who co-founded the World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation. (That’s Rod in the photo at right.)
    He co-founded this observance some years ago with the Rev. Ed Mullins of Christ Church Cranbrook in Michigan. Working together, these priests have carried their creative ideas about annual liturgies devoted to global healing to conferences around the world. Click here to jump to the World Sabbath site to read more about the movement they sparked, which many other people, now, are carrying forward.
    In addition, Rod is a poet and a promoter of regional events for poets in the Midwest.

    So, many readers already know the “good news” at the end of this true story.
    But that doesn’t diminish the harshness of Christmas Eve 1970, when Rod was a senior in college, lying in a hospital bed.
    AND NOW, this holiday gift from writer Rod Reinhart …

Cancer Claus

    It’s Christmas Eve, 1970, and the world seems filled with joy — at least for other people.
    Every time I went to the mall this year, a million people were rushing — dragging around their holy secrets in shopping bags, getting ready for the big day. Wherever I go, I’m hit with a riot of lights on every window, store and tree. It feels like angels are about to burst out in song.
    Now, it’s Christmas Eve and I know that even my family is running around our house stringing lights, hiding presents and baking pies.
    Not me.
    I’m here.
    I have Cancer.
    I’m having surgery on Christmas Day. They might have to do chemo and radiation, too.
    Can you believe it? At Christmas!
    My doctor says he has never seen a lung so bad in someone so young.
    But, I’ve never smoked!
    The doctor just shakes his head and says I have to go through this right away, if I hope to save my life.
    So here I am — in the hospital on Christmas Eve.
    The room is very nice, filled with sterile hospital light. Out in the hall, I can hear machines and see people charging around, but no one comes in to talk to me. That’s OK.
    But, really, the place has this strange smell. Even the tree in the lounge smells more like death than holidays. I always liked Christmas. I used to go to church. I just wish I didn’t have to be here facing surgery when everyone else is out singing carols and getting ready to open gifts.

    Why did all of this happen now?
    I was doing pretty well. I thought my symptoms were under control. After all, I had told all these different doctors I was coughing up blood. They shook their heads and said it was some kind of allergy or maybe an old football injury. Maybe something had happened when I worked at General Motors for a while. I had suffered like this all through college and nobody knew what caused it.
    Then, I went to this last dumb doctor in early December and he saw a tumor on an x-ray. He wanted to take out the lung the very next day, but I wouldn’t let him. I wanted to spend the holidays with my family, then I would finish up the semester. He let me go, but a few weeks later, my lung collapsed. That’s when he told me the choice was simple: lose the lung or die.
    And here I am on Christmas Eve, waiting for my turn under the knife.   

    Lights blaze everywhere, red and green, but for me, everything is a blank wall. Nurses smile and doctors laugh but it’s all phony. Behind all their sympathy, I know they’re thinking: “Better you in here than me.”
    I keep thinking: How am I going to survive on only one lung?

    I hear bells jingling in the hall.
    Oh, No! Santa Claus is coming to see me. Just what I need — especially now!
    I don’t want some bearded stranger trying to cheer me up. I will feel as bad as I want to, thank you!
    Then this Santa fills up the door, and he’s the strangest looking Santa I’ve ever seen. His beard is scraggly and falling apart. He’s thin, much too thin for Santa Claus. I can tell he’s pretty young but he looks older and more worn out than any Santa I’ve ever seen.
    His eyes don’t twinkle right. They water and look out of focus. He looks like he’s hurting.
    “Listen kid,” he says, “I know you’re in here for cancer. It’s terrible. This is my fifth time through chemo and radiation. I’ve had it since I was about your age. Each time, it’s just as bad as the last.
    “But you can make it. Sure, they’ll cut you open and take out that lung. And if they have to do chemo and radiation, you’ll make it through that too. You’re going to go through a lot of pain, and it’s going to take a long, long time, but you’re young and you’re going to recover.”
    He’s not done!
    “You’ve got a right to feel bad,” he continues. “It’s Christmas Eve. But, hey, count yourself lucky. You came in just in time. I’ve buried a lot of friends who didn’t make it. You’ve got other Christmases in your life. You’re going to survive. So get the surgery. Stay alive, and remember, people need you.”
    Then, before turning away, he adds, “Listen kid, I’ll be praying for you. You’re going to come out of this OK.”
    Then, he gives me a candy cane and walks out the door.

    I think about this a long time. He’s the weirdest Santa I’ve ever seen. He didn’t try to make me laugh or promise me presents. He didn’t even try to cheer me up. He was in worse pain than I was.
    I didn’t know if I should thank him or kick him. What right did he have telling me how sick he is, when I’m facing cancer on my own? I didn’t need to hear him telling me how bad this was all going to be.

    Later on, though, I decide this Santa Claus was all right, after all.
    He was honest with me and that’s more than I can say about these doctors. Even my family and friends keep telling me to smile. They say this operation won’t hurt too much and I’m going to come out feeling just fine.
    Yeah, this Santa Claus is OK.
    So what if I’m in a lot of pain? I’m going to survive. So what if they have to do chemo and my hair falls out? It’ll grow back. Even if I have to go around looking like a billiard ball, I can handle it. Besides, I have Santa Claus praying for me.
    So, I can face losing a lung at Christmas. It might hurt, but I got hurt bad playing football, so what’s the difference? If Santa Claus has the guts to face years of chemo and radiation, then I have the guts to face it, too.
    After all, it’s Christmas.
    The truth is — these people in the hospital and all of my family and friends are doing their best to be nice to me and it’s better to be here than dead. Sure, I’ll miss out on some of the Christmas parties, but I’m missing the bad weather, too. I’m glad to know that, at least, I won’t be coughing up any more blood.

     Earlier, Mom asked me if I would go with her to the hospital chapel for Christmas Eve services. Actually, I haven’t gone to church in quite a long time. But, thinking about everything that’s happened, I decide: I’m going with her tonight.
    After all, this Santa Claus needs my prayers as much as I need his.

    A nurse stops by to check on me.
    “Hey, who’s the Santa Claus who came by to see me today?” I ask.
    She shakes her head. Looks like I’m kidding her. “No,” she says, “not today. We don’t have a Santa Claus visiting this floor today. But, don’t worry. He’ll show up tomorrow.”


COME BACK TOMORROW for another Christmas story.

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