No. 187
Article by:
Athena Tan

Editor’s Note: When commissioned for this piece, Athena asked me if writing about caregiving during the holidays would be too “somber.” In a year of staggering loss and loneliness, grief and dimmed hope, I cannot imagine a more appropriate holiday story than hers. It is always very surreal to experience a familiar tradition - like Christmas -  with new gravity - like celebrating it with those who are ill. And so many of us are doing that today.

Athena and I share the odd position of being caretakers for those from whom we still expect care - and this difficult absurdity illuminates itself most during the holidays. Our world has collapsed somehow, and yet - the holidays still arrive. Christmas still comes, and with it the irresistible temptation to be cheerful and jolly and angry and God knows what else. Christmas isn’t cancelled, Athena writes. It’s just that her mother has cancer. It’s just that we will celebrate, still. What a cruelty but even so-- what a mercy.

We’re so proud of you, Athena.

Christmas season means holidays, which means no school, which means that my family is gathered back together in our home.

There’s my younger brother, my dad, my mom, and myself. That makes four of us home for Christmas, and it’s always a special time. The festive mood usually seeps in on the sunny day before Christmas itself –– Christmas Eve. We spend time together during lunch and dinner, and I usually bring my brother, Metta, out for a sibling-celebration in the hours in between (and to do last-minute family Christmas shopping). On Christmas day itself, we have the main celebratory meal: Christmas dinner, and the rest of the day is just us basking in the presence of a good year spent together.

I have always noted that Christmas celebrations for the Tan family –– our family –– do not operate on any set schedule. Apart from the vague times we denote for main meals, we’re pretty chill. The holidays aren’t structured: they’re  about appreciating one another’s presence at home, the spontaneity of our love and the little ways it takes form. The hours don’t matter, only the people do.

This year, my mom has to eat by eight in the morning. Lunch has to be before three in the afternoon, and only after twelve o’clock sharp. Dinner has to start by six o’clock to six thirty in the evening.

This year, the seasonal cheer is still here; Christmas isn’t cancelled –– my mom just has cancer. That shouldn’t change anything, I guess.

It’s still something I am learning to cope with. Something my entire family is trying to get used to: not going over to my aunt’s house for a large family dinner, because my mom can’t really walk up the slope of her driveway. Celebrating with a sickness is not easy, even for those who do not have it. My extended family commemorated the Mid-Autumn festival on Zoom, with all our cousins and babies and aunts and uncles in their own homes, beaming through frames on one laptop screen. My family was at home while I was in the hall of my university. Five minutes into the Zoom, I had to turn off my camera, because there were too many tears welling up in my eyes. 

Everyone else looked happy, coaxing toddlers to speak, laughing with mooncake crumbs visible through even their grainy cameras. My brother looked slightly sullen. My dad was holding my mom’s arm. And my mom looked like a shell of herself. She was wearing one of my old concert T-shirts on her slender frame and a half-smile on her lips. And intermittently, throughout the call, she would lift her arm up, unhook it from my dad’s, and rearrange her hair.

Half her hair was gone from chemotherapy. There were still strands of black. You know those girls on TikTok with the ‘gradient’ hairstyle? With some strands shining blonde and the rest black from the roots?

My mom’s was reverse-gradient. Her hair was entirely grey or white, slightly black down the bottom. Her hair used to be her pride and joy. And now, it's just her pride. Or its shell, laid hollow and bare.

This year, the seasonal cheer is still here; Christmas isn’t cancelled –– my mom just has cancer. That shouldn’t change anything, I guess.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve. December 24. It’s a Friday. I’m finally home from university for the holiday weekend. My mom sits at the head of our table at lunch, and she pats her head of hair. “Metta, Athena,” she asks. We turn to her. “How does mommy look?” 

We say in earnest that her skin is glowing, her smile makes us smile, and her hair still looks good. Because that’s the truth. Actually, she’s made marked improvements. She can walk now, but not too far. With Covid-19 afoot, she would rather stay at home  –– patients with illnesses have a higher risk of getting and struggling with the virus. She has even resumed her maternal feistiness, scolding us when we don’t put our socks properly into the laundry basket, when my laptop charger is strewn over the couch.

My mom seems happy for a second at our compliments. Then she turns to my dad and gives him a knowing smile. “It’s on the inside, then. All the pain and ugliness is on the inside.” 

I thank my lucky stars I’m seated at the far end of the table, farthest from my mom. As I accept the chili from her outstretched arms, my eyes shake with tears. I don’t want her to feel ugly. I don’t want her to feel sad. It’s not about being ugly, actually –– it’s not about the superficial word, it’s not about her hair falling out and across the floor of our living room.

It’s the fact that despite the circumstances, Christmas has arrived: the holidays haven’t been cancelled, and my mother has cancer.

When I found out that my mom had Stage 4 cancer, I half-expected the rest of the world to stop its activity, because barely any ounce of happiness stirred in my heart. The first couple of weeks were bad. I would excuse myself from every social gathering to pinch myself, because I felt that whatever happiness I was getting from laughter, conversation –– wasn’t something I deserved. My mom was fading, and I was here living life

In university, I took up more leadership responsibilities. With the acceptance of certain roles, you get to hear how people describe you. And my friends described me as ‘bubbly,’ ‘vibrant,’ and ‘easy to talk to.’ Yet everything seemed to slap me in the face. How could I be bubbly or vibrant when my family was breaking apart? Why was I ‘easy to talk to’ when I could barely form proper sentences to my mom when I was home? 

As December approached, I really wanted things to go back to normal –– whatever normal was. After all, Christmas wasn’t cancelled. The world hadn’t stopped just because my mom is sick. 

On the first day of Christmas, my mother received the results: her cancer marker had gone up by at least ten times. On the second, a scan. On the third day of Christmas, a blood test. On the fourth, the results of the blood scan; the results of the blood test. On the fifth day of Christmas, a consultation for another round of chemotherapy, a stronger type of intervention this time, because the doctors felt that some of the progress made had adverse effects on my mom’s already-frail, skinny body. No partridge in a pear tree for us, then: just chemotherapy, a blood test, a scan, and difficult news. 

Christmas, somehow, still isn’t cancelled.

Christmas, somehow, still isn’t cancelled. So my brother and I go on our siblings’ outing. We browse some gift stores. Instead of getting mom and dad the gifts we would traditionally get them before, plus chocolate, we go straight to stores that would help lift the ambience of my mom’s ‘cancer room,’ since she would be stuck there all day. We avoid food altogether because she can’t eat foods too rich, or food that is overly processed.

Christmas isn’t cancelled. We have dinner together. It is great. I make sure to take pictures, because in the back of my mind, it isn’t cancelled, but my mom has cancer, and it’s hard when it’s the last stage.

This year, Christmas isn’t cancelled. We’re all at home.

There’s my younger brother, my dad, my mom and myself. That makes four of us home for Christmas, and it’s always a special time. This year, it’s even better when I know that my mom is here in December, with us, and every moment is a fighting chance.