No one throws a party like my little sister Alicia. Saturday evening, Joe and the girls and I walked in to find that the best of Pinterest had unfurled across her impeccably clothed tables — appletini glimmering green in a glass beverage dispenser, dishes of hors d’oeuvres with their corresponding labels on golden doilies, gifts for the winners of Bingo and “Name That Christmas Tune” (I won!) ninja-wrapped on the buffet beside a cheesecake the size of our collective gaping maws. Seriously. Pin this on your “Hall of Fame” boards in her honor:
Last family holiday party, I’d just started chemo, and I’d arrived in my wig, red kimono sweater, high heels, and layers of makeup, hoping the toll of chemo wasn’t evident already. That was my goal throughout treatment — to hide it so everyone around me would feel reassured. And my biggest lesson learned in hindsight was don’t bother hiding. The Tennille wig reassures no one.
This year, no chemo. Only a patchwork of scars. And the experience saved me from having my ornament stolen in the exchange game.
“Look at those eyes!” my sister Shelly said as I clung to my freshly unwrapped Spode bell and made a sad puppy face upon her approach. “I can’t do it!”
Shelly had brought us “Shut the Front Door” mugs without knowing this modified another phrase with its pseudo-cursing flourish.
Which led the Firecracker, who’s an excellent early reader, to sing a rousing rendition of, “we wish you would shut the front door, we wish you would shut the front door, we wish you would shut the front door, and a happy New Year,” as she accidentally glued her hair to an ornament at the craft table.
In fact, the Firecracker was less like a single bottle rocket whistling past its own smoke trail and more like that display in San Diego when an entire barge of fireworks went off at once.
Times however many minutes there were in the evening. It ensured that by nightfall every tiny accessory accompanying the Elsa doll she’d unwrapped was sprinkled across her Aunt Alicia’s house and front lawn to slip into oblivion. Every time Joe told her to “Let It Go,” she grew angrier than that song has ever made any of you. So if you spotted me combing the sidewalk with a flashlight app around 10 p.m. Saturday night while Firecracker howled from her booster seat in the car, that’s why.
But before that, Joe and my nephew and my brothers-in-laws crowded into the garage with instruments to play Alice in Chain’s “Man in a Box,” as people are wont to do at Christmastime. They were short a singer, but the appletini beverage dispenser was nearly drained and Shelly’s husband settled his glasses across his nose near the tool bench and leaned in to see the laptop screen on which the lyrics glowed. “Buried in my sheeeets!” he amended as my younger nephew slipped back into the house from the garage to announce, “I can’t unsee that!” Which is how you know a family party has achieved the stuff of legends. We spent the next fifteen minutes trying to sneak pictures.
It was a lovely end to a day that had begun with me buying cheap maternity jeans online. Remember the episode of “The Simpsons” when Homer wears Marge’s old maternity pants, finding them to be the most comfortable pants he’d ever worn? He’s onto something. Right before New Year’s Eve, I’m scheduled for a complete hysterectomy my oncologist strongly suggested since the type of breast cancer I had is one that likes to materialize in the ovaries as well. And ovarian cancer is difficult to detect with enough advanced warning to stop it. So, it’s kind of like we’re pulling out the last musical chair and leaving cancer nowhere left to sit. Shut the front door, cancer! And we’re working the procedure in before our insurance deductible resets again. Thus, the maternity pants for New Year’s, with their stretchy abdominal panels, a pro-tip from another woman I know who’d had a hysterectomy.
As I clicked through the maternity selections, I ached for those pre-cancer years when I was planning the births of Hannah and then Firecracker instead of another surgery. With each pregnancy, scouring the interwebs for decent tall-lady maternity clothes was a ritual. Here I am in one of my favorite ensembles, pregnant with Firecracker at Hannah’s dance recital. Hannah had strep throat, but we didn’t know it yet. I thought she was just making up ailments to get out of having to perform in a green unitard, and I made her go on stage anyway. Because I am the worst mom. But don’t I look great?
Now I suppose I’ll be looking great ringing in the New Year on the sofa with four new incisions under the one wrap-around scar from the last surgery that makes me look like the sawn-in-half woman in a magic trick sewn whole again. Or, rather, I’ll be as comfortable as one can be under the circumstances. I’ll be Homer in Marge’s pants.
At the end of the night of the big family party, Joe carried the Firecracker from the car, draped over his shoulder, her feet in striped tights dangling while Hannah carried the gift bags and the Shut the Front Door mug. Once inside, I craned my arm to dig a thumb after an itch on my back underneath the band of a compression belt (that’s a fancy way of saying girdle).
“What are you doing?” Joe wanted to know.
“See this?” I pivoted, lifting the back of my shirt so he could inspect the thick rubber of the turned-out band across my spine. “It makes me itch all the time.”
“You probably don’t need to wear it anymore,” he said.
I’d been wearing it, as required by the surgeon, since the last procedure.
“Yeah, but they’re probably going to make me wear it again after the hysterectomy anyway, so ….” I let the band pop back into place, thinking of the maternity pants, thinking of the girls small in my arms, thinking of holidays arranged around surgeries and chemo.
“You’re almost all done with everything,” Joe said. “Every year gets better from here on out.”
He’s onto something, too.