By Dawn Holt
[This Christmas letter was sent to friends and family along with a box of chocolate-covered cherries.]
terrible way to spend Christmas! My oldest son, Cameron, had been
diagnosed with acute myleoblastic leukemia on June 30, 1997. 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, now here we were...at Duke University Hospital. Cameron had
a cord blood transplant, a last-ditch effort to save his life, on December 4.
Now, here it was...Christmas Eve.
A very small room on ward 9200 was a different place to spend Christmas. We had always spent weeks baking cookies. Now the cookies were sent from family and friends because I wanted to spend my time with Cameron, trying to ease the long, tedious hours. He had been in isolation for weeks because he had no immune system, the result of even more chemotherapy and drugs that would hopefully make his new bone marrow engraft. As some presents had arrived in the mail, we opened them immediately...anything to make a bright moment...here or there.
Christmas Eve, 6:00 p.m., was always the magic hour. The time when my family, in Iowa...Wisconsin...California ...or Washington, D.C....all opened our presents at the same time, somehow bringing the family together, even though apart. Cameron's father, stepmother, sister and brother would also be opening presents at their house in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This Christmas, it would just be Cameron and me in the small room with few decorations, since they weren't allowed in the sterile environment.
With the drone of the HEPA filter and the beeping of his six infusion pumps hooked to a catheter in his heart, Cameron waited until 6:00 p.m. exactly. He insisted we follow this small tradition, some semblance of normalcy abandoned six months earlier. I gave him a few presents I had saved, his favorite being a Hug Me Elmo that said "I love you" when you squeezed him. It was over 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 – perfect edges, a folded piece of ribbon held down with a gold embossed sticker. Surprised, I said, "For me?"
"Of course. It wouldn't be Christmas unless you had something to unwrap from me," he replied.
I was almost speechless. "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 this 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 are neutropenic. 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, because Cameron had grown weaker after the cord blood transplant. He could barely walk, and certainly not unassisted. It took every ounce of strength just to cruise the small ward halls, pushing the heavy medication and pain pump IV pole. 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 gave me hell when I got back. I didn't get to sneak back in; they had been looking for me."
I held the box even tighter now. I couldn't look up. I 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 open."
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, who had begun all this suffering so soon after high school graduation and who taught me so much 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 how we spent Christmas 1997 at Duke University Hospital, battling leukemia, and we'll remember how horrible all of it was and how glad we are that it is finally over." And we made that pact right then and there, sharing the box of chocolate-covered cherries. What a wonderful way to spend Christmas!
Cameron died on March 4, 1998, after two unsuccessful cord blood transplants. He was so brave – never giving in, never giving up. This will be my first Christmas without him. The first Christmas without something from him to unwrap.
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.