Memories of cancer (especially those without a happy ending) are not supposed to be fond memories. But if you were to ask my mother the period of her life when she laughed the most, she would tell you unabashed.
“While your father was dying of cancer.” This would quickly be followed up by “of course that was the period of my life I cried the most too.”
The details of my parents meeting and subsequent courtship are not important to this story.
( Although if you’d like to catch the essence of their story I suggest you listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zo0UfKqwB94 in the background.) All you really need to know is my father and mother grew up as different as possible. My mother came from an affluent, but cold family. My father’s family was loving but very poor. The thing their two families had in common was Christmas. Christmas was always a magical time and this lead to a great love of the holiday by both of my parents. But I digress, I bet you are still wondering what a Santa head could possibly have to do with cancer.
Well through a series of smart investments and sacrifice, my parents built up their own wealth. The year my mom turned 32 they considered themselves to have “arrived”. Two weeks before my parents left on their first trip abroad my father went in to see his doctor about a loss of appetite. The results came back, and my parents were floored. The diagnose hung in the air. Pancreatic Cancer. The doctor went over some options for treatment and then my parents left to discuss how to proceed. My mother launched into flight mode. She started canceling their trip and researching the best hospital so my father could start treatment right away.
“Put down the phone Hannah.” My father said.
My mother looked at him with confusion, her bottom lip quivering to hold back a flood of tears. Then my father calmly explained.
“We’re still going on that trip.”
At this point, my mother, my dear sweet mother, who had tried so hard to hold it together and be brave, lost it.
“And lose valuable time!?!” she cried! “Cancer doesn’t care if you want to go to Europe!!!” “it doesn’t care we’ve sacrificed everything to be where we are now!” there is only a 25% survival rate of the first year as it is! We need to get started…we need to get started…” At this point, my father crossed the room and held my mom as she pounded on his chest.
“We need to get started” she sputtered out between sobs. At this point, my father told my mother something that changed the course of her life.
“I’m not going to get treatment.”
My mother looked at my father with disbelief. He continued, “At this stage, there is only a 25 percent chance I’m going to make it anyway.” We’ve spent the last 10 years sacrificing and working hard. I don’t want to spend the next year having cancer being the focus of my life. I want to enjoy this life we’ve build together.” And if all I have left is a few months, I’d rather spend them laughing and living. I’d rather you spent them that way too. Promise me we’ll spend them that way.”
Well what could my mother do? You can’t really tell a man dying of cancer he’s an idiot. So my mother promised and they left on their trip. My father worked hard to make everything lighthearted and joyful. And my mom did her best to put on a happy face. That was just the type of man my father was. Even though he was the one dying, he was more concerned with my mother’s happiness.
One day as they toured Vienna, they stopped by a small store selling Christmas decorations. There on the shelf amongst Christmas plates and mugs they saw the Santa head cookie jar. My father made an off-handed comment that he thought the sparkle in Santa’s eye looked more murderous than jolly. This comment caught my mother off guard and she laughed so loud that the little Asian man next to her fell backward into a display of sweater-wearing reindeer. This caused both of my parents to laugh so boisterously that they were asked to please make a purchase or leave. My parents with their sides still shaking from laughter left, but my father quickly ran back in. He came out a few minutes later with the Santa head tucked under his arm. My mother started laughing all over again. “ I don’t want that murderous Santa in my house.” she said.
My father insisted. “This is the first time since the diagnosis that I’ve seen you truly laugh.” “I want this Santa around as a reminder to laugh.”
For the next several months my parents did just that. They laughed. They went on with life and made more memories. There was joy in their home until one day my mother found out the news. She set my father down.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
The news seemed to hang in the air until my father coming to his senses jumped up and ran off.
“What are you doing?” my mother asked a little perplexed by his reaction.
“There’s a future little one coming! If it’s a boy I need to be around to show him how to be a man! If It’s a girl I need to be around to walk her down the aisle!”
My mother was overjoyed with relief. My father was going to get treatment! But their joy was short-lived. A scan came back to report that my father’s cancer was too far progressed for any treatment option to be effective. My father slumped down in the chair next to him and then fell on his knees. He held my mother by the waist and cried into her.
“I’m sorry…” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry…” I thought I was doing the right thing for you, but I want to live…I want the child to know who I am… I want to live.”
My mother gently lifted my father up and went into the other room. She came back with the murderous Santa.
“They will,” she said. “This Santa will always be a reminder for me of you and the promise you had me make to keep living and laughing.”
And so the Santa head has always been there. As a centerpiece at my father’s funeral, and in the hospital room at my birth. It sat on the mantle through my mother’s widow years and even during her marriage to my step-father.
As we packed up the possessions of my mother to move her after the death of my step-father, we were taken back when she directed us to take the Santa head to a thrift store. Her reason was simply that it was time for someone else to laugh and live because of it. Well, I can’t let this Santa head go to just anyone. Its new owner needs to know the history of this Santa and all that has been brought about because of it. My mother truly kept her promise to my father. She visited every continent, learned German, published her memoirs, and dedicated her life to helping others live and laugh too. It is my hope for the new owner that you will live! You’re not just buying a Santa head. Your buying a piece of my father’s legacy.