My father retired in 1995, and, beginning in 1997, he and my mother began spending their winters in Weslaco, Texas. Our family would celebrate the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in October before they left for Texas during the first half of November. At Christmas, my brother, sister, and I would get together and celebrate, rotating the celebration among the three of us.
In 2000, two months before my parents planned on leaving for Texas, my father found a bump on his tongue. He didn’t say anything about this to anyone because he didn’t want to upset our mom and because he didn’t want anything to stop him and my mom from going to Texas. We celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas, and my parents left in November. That December, my mother called us and told us they were coming home in January 2001. My mother had persuaded my father to see a doctor in Texas, who diagnosed stage 1 oral cancer. Instead of celebrating Christmas at my house, we spent the time researching oral cancer and educating ourselves about what to expect down the road. It was a most unsettling holiday season that year, during which we all tried to put on a brave front and generally failed at it. We had entered a strange new land with a new language that we quickly learned to decode and speak fluently.
My father had surgery at St. Louis’ Barnes-Jewish Hospital in January 2001 in a 16-hour procedure during which his surgeon removed three-fourths of his tongue and built a new tongue using skin from his right forearm, complete with a tattooed lady. His new tongue is sutured to the floor of his mouth. My father endured radiation and speech therapy and even had to learn to eat again after the surgery. Today one must listen closely when he talks, and he is unable to enjoy many of his favorite foods. All in all, we consider this a small price to pay for five-year cancer survival.
The story doesn’t end there. Three months after my father learned that he had cancer, my mother was found to have stage 4 colorectal cancer. Barnes-Jewish became our new home. By that time, we were old hands at dealing with cancer, but this diagnosis, coming so quickly on the heels of our father’s diagnosis, was devastating. The news was not good. Her tumor was so big, she had to endure both chemotherapy and radiation therapy in an attempt to shrink the tumor to an operable size. In July 2001, she underwent surgery. Afterward, her surgeon told us that the cancer was more advanced than the tests had showed, but she had gotten it all. Against all odds, my mother recently marked her second year as a cancer survivor. Survival rates for stage 4 colorectal cancer are slim. I didn’t expect my mom to survive six months.
In 2001, she and my father went to Texas in October and returned in December so that my mother could endure additional surgery. My mother’s cancer had spread to her lungs, and she has had four lung surgeries to remove cancerous tumors. Since 2001, my parents have returned home for Christmas before her surgeries, and we have spent the holidays together. During her last surgery in 2004, she almost died as a result of surgical complications, but medical personnel were able to resuscitate her. She returned to us speaking about seeing the white light and how her grandson and granddaughter were there and took her hands and refused to let her walk into the light.
Since December 2000, our Christmases have been anything but ordinary, a celebration of survival. Last year my parents came home at Christmas, not for another cancer operation but to celebrate the birth of my sister’s baby, a girl and my parent’s third grandchild. This year they are celebrating Christmas in Texas, where they plan on staying until March.
As for the rest of us, who knows where we’ll be this year?
Roberta Codemo is a contributor to Illinois Times and host of Story Bites, a storytelling program that used to air on WQNA (88.3 FM).