Chocolate-Covered Cherries

Chocolate-Covered Cherries

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

Chocolate-Covered Cherries

The experience of grief is a great gift . . . for the heart that breaks is just opening again.

Sharon Callahan

What a terrible way to spend Christmas. My oldest son, Cameron, had been diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukemia the previous June. After a harrowing ride in a military helicopter to Walter Reed Hospital, three rounds of horrendous chemotherapy, an excruciating lung resection and a disappointing bone-marrow search, we were at Duke University Hospital. Cameron had undergone a cord-blood transplant, a last-ditch effort to save his life, in early December. Now, here it was Christmas Eve.

Spending Christmas in the small room on Ward 9200 seemed strange—so different from our usual holiday setting at home. We had always spent weeks on our favorite holiday project: baking cookies. Now the cookies were sent from family and friends since I tried to spend all my time with Cameron, helping to ease the long, tedious hours. He had been in isolation for weeks because the chemotherapy and drugs left him with no immune system. When presents arrived in the mail, we didn’t wait for Christmas, but opened them immediately—anything to create a bright moment in that dull and painful time.

Always in the past, 6:00 P.M. on Christmas Eve was the “Magic Hour.” This was the time when everyone in my family in Iowa, Wisconsin, California and Washington, D.C., opened our presents. We all did this at exactly the same time, somehow bringing the family together, even though we lived so far apart. Cameron’s father, stepmother, sister and brother also opened presents at their house at that time.

This year, the Magic Hour would find just Cameron and me in a small, almost-bare hospital room, since most decorations weren’t allowed in the sterile environment.

We sat together, listening to the drone of the HEPA filter and the beeping of the six infusion pumps hooked to a catheter in his heart, as Cameron waited until 6:00 P.M. exactly to open the few presents I had saved aside for him. He insisted we follow this small tradition to create some semblance of normalcy—all of which had been abruptly abandoned six months earlier. I watched him open the presents. His favorite was a Hug Me Elmo toy that said “I love you” when he squeezed it.

All too quickly, Christmas was over. Or so I thought.

Cameron carefully reached over the side of his hospital bed and handed me a small green box. It was wrapped beautifully, obviously by a gift store, with perfect edges and a folded piece of ribbon held with a gold embossed sticker.

Surprised, I said, “For me?”

“Mom, it wouldn’t be Christmas unless you have something to unwrap, too.”

I was speechless. Finally, I asked, “But how did you get this? Did you ask a nurse to run down to the gift store?”

Cameron leaned back in his bed and gave me his most devilish smile. “Nope. Yesterday, when you went home for a few hours to take a shower, I sneaked downstairs.”

“CAMERON! You aren’t supposed to leave the floor! You know you’re susceptible to almost any germ. They let you leave the ward?”

“Nope!” His smile was even bigger now. “They weren’t looking. I just walked out.”

This was no small feat since he could barely walk, and certainly not unassisted. It took every ounce of strength just to cruise the small ward halls, pushing the heavy IV pole hung with medication and a pain pump. How could he possibly have made it nine floors to the gift store?

“Don’t worry, Mom. I wore my mask, and I used the cane. Man, they really chewed me out when I got back. I couldn’t sneak back in, since they’d been looking for me.”

I couldn’t look up. I held the box even tighter now and had already started to cry.

“Open it. It’s not much, but it wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t have something from me to unwrap.”

I opened the box of gift-store-wrapped chocolate-covered cherries. “They are your favorite, right?” he asked hopefully.

I finally looked at my poor eighteen-year-old baby. Cameron had begun all this suffering almost immediately after his high-school graduation. Did he know how much he was teaching me about what being a family really meant? “Oh, absolutely my favorite!”

Cameron chuckled a little bit. “See, we still have our traditions— even in here.”

“Cameron, this is the best present I’ve ever received— ever,” I told him, and I meant every word. “Let’s start a new tradition. Every Christmas, let’s only give each other a box of chocolate-covered cherries, and we’ll reminisce about the year we spent Christmas at Duke University Hospital battling leukemia. We’ll remember how horrible it all was, and how glad we are that it is finally over.”

We made that pact right then and there, as we shared the box of chocolate-covered cherries. What a wonderful way to spend Christmas!

Cameron died two months later, after two unsuccessful cord-blood transplants. He was so brave—never giving in, never giving up. On my first Christmas without him I sent a special present to friends and family with this note:

“This is my gift to you—a box of chocolate-covered cherries. And when you open it, I hope it will remind you what the holidays are really about—being with your friends and family—recreating traditions, maybe starting some new ones—but most of all—love.”

What a beautiful way to spend Christmas.

Dawn Holt

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