Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Magic of Christmas: Touched By Cancer

"It's a special kind of love ..." 

It was a last-minute decision. When I was in Tahiti in September, my friend Dan and I decided to go whale watching on our last morning on the island. We couldn't get on a tour with some of the others from the cruise we were on, so we went with a group of people we didn't know - French and Germans. It was an amazing experience on many levels, not the least because we met a German couple, Miriam and Michael (pictured above), with whom we seemed to form an instant bond. We had boarded as complete strangers and left the boat feeling that we had been friends for years.

Miriam didn't know about Mark's death until we returned home, learning about it through my posts on Facebook and on my blog. Since September, she and I have exchanged numerous messages and she has often left short comments on my Facebook posts. Each conveyed love and friendship and support that again seemed to convey a depth of feeling that had been nurtured for many years instead of during a few short hours on a boat in the South Pacific and across cyberspace in the months that followed.

This morning, I sent Miriam a Christmas greeting, and she responded in kind but then went on to share something she hadn't previously told me. Her father, she explained, to whom she was very close, had died of cancer only a few weeks prior to our meeting in Tahiti.

Miriam and her beautiful father

Suddenly, I understood ... and I marveled. I marveled that life had brought us together, across thousands of miles, to create a bond forged through a common sense of loss. "Special people," Miriam had written of this bond, "are connected in a special way. It's a special kind of love..." And I marveled that the magic of Christmas had revealed the source of this bond, this love.

And as I sat in wonder at this gift, my thoughts turned toward another travel encounter - this one on a river cruise ship outside of Nuremberg, Germany. It was the fall of 2015. Mark and I were wrapping up our last big trip together with a week-long cruise on the Main and Rhein rivers. After boarding the ship and checking-in, we went to a "meet and greet." The first people we met were a delightful couple from Massachusetts. As was the case with Michael and Miriam, we seemed to form an instant bond with Pam and her husband. It was if we had known each other for years. It wasn't until the following day after we saw Pam being lovingly assisted in her scooter by her husband that we learned that she had degenerative MS.

Mark and Pam in Rothenburg

Was it coincidence that the first people we met on that cruise were also grappling with terminal illness? I didn't think so at the time, and my experience with Miriam and Michael only reinforces this belief. I messaged Pam this morning to wish her a Merry Christmas and to tell her I was thinking of her. She replied by sending me a picture of a small Santa figurine we had purchased for her (she had told us she collected them) in Rothenburg. "I think of you and Mark every time I look at it," she wrote. I had forgotten about this gift. What a gift it was to me to be reminded of it.

Cancer/terminal illness and Christmas. On the surface, the two concepts and everything they conjure up seem to be diametrically opposed. But the magic of Christmas seems to reveal hidden gifts.

I'm not going to lie. These past few days have been rough. The pain of losing Mark came back with a ferocity that I have not felt since he died last spring of prostate cancer; and when I dropped my kids off yesterday afternoon, the prospect of spending Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day alone for the first time in my life was bleak and stark. 

I came home and decided to read through some of my journal entries from Christmas 2011 - my first with Mark - and Christmas 2012. Before Mark's diagnosis. As I read, I recalled that Mark and I, despite being very much in love, had some issues in our relationship that we were working through. As I pondered this, I remembered anew what a difference his diagnosis had made in our lives and in our relationship. After he was diagnosed in April 2013, everything changed. What had once irritated or caused friction was no longer important. We entered into an almost magical place where time ceased being linear and every day was special and important. We were granted the rare opportunity to share a love that was refined by cancer. Recognizing this anew last night and this morning was a gift.

I have at various times and in various ways experienced what I call the magic of Christmas. As I dropped the kids off yesterday, there seemed little chance that magic would manifest itself this year. But then, as soon as I said goodbye to the children, I received a kind and heartfelt message of understanding and support from a friend. Then, later in the evening, I received an invitation from my ex-wife to share Christmas dinner with her and my children later today, which I have accepted. Then, of course, came the hidden gifts of being touched by terminal illness.

I am grateful this Christmas morning to be reminded of the beauty of life - a beauty that is sometimes hidden or obscured but which, when we are very lucky, reveals itself. Truly, a magical gift.


  1. Happy Christmas, my dear friend. Once again, I'm moved and inspired by another post of yours and I'm THRILLED that you will be joining your kids and your ex for dinner...I love that....

  2. No words can truly express the gratitude I feel for you opening your life to us. Dear friend, your loss is not as great as your love and the beautiful life you and Mark shared. Thank you. And may the peace of the Christmas season bring you some solace and joy.