At midnight on December 31st, Arline and I followed her cousins out of the house where we’d been eating tamales and into the empty residential street to watch fireworks bloom over the neighborhood. We toasted. We hugged and wished each other a feliz año. In the distance, several golden lights floated in the sky. What were they? Lanterns. On New Year’s Eve, many Panamanians send a lantern into the sky with a wish. Within a few minutes, dozens of lanterns were rising in every direction.
Arline and I made the same wish as we clanked our glasses: for a better year. We will always remember 2017 as the year of the cancer. Arline found the lump in her leg in January, was diagnosed in March, had five weeks of radiation, and endured two surgeries in May and June that removed parts of her quadriceps muscle and rectus tendon. The rest of the year she did physical therapy exercises every day to regain function in her leg.
Some people see cancer as a gift that reminds us of all that is precious. I can’t see it that way. Cancer spiked our lives with moments of terror and sorrow so acute they left us sobbing and breathless. If I could return such a gift, I would.
But as I thought back on the year, I realized how many moments of joy and pleasure we had during an otherwise challenging time. On the day Arline returned home after the first surgery, a flock of grandchildren fluttered around, laughing and joking and asking questions about the brace on her leg. We managed to make our annual camping trip with friends in August, and Arline hiked with her walking poles at Sunrise on Mount Rainier. In fact, we took several camping trips this year — to Deception Pass, the Olympic Peninsula, and Mount Saint Helens.
We also celebrated birthdays with family and friends, went to a retreat for cancer patients at a beautiful center on Hood Canal, spent several days with my parents on the Oregon Coast, took a trip to Los Angeles to walk on the beach, and, in the last days of the year, returned to Panama, where we hadn’t been in almost a decade. Everywhere we went, Arline was embraced by long-unseen relatives and friends who reminded her of what her home country had given her, even as her adopted country feels as much, if not more, like home now.
What I want to remember about 2017, then, is that, while cancer shredded the fabric of our lives, our community of friends and family and the solace of oceans, trees, and mountains knitted it back together. What gets unraveled gets continuously re-raveled. Regardless of the sorrows that may await us, we will laugh again.