Gingerbread Houses and Cancer

The ginger tradition in this house doesn’t stop with the cookies! Each year we set aside a Saturday to design, build and decorate gingerbread houses. This is a highly anticipated afternoon of meticulous planning and adorning for one child and a wild sloppy sugar high for the other. If you ever want insight into a child’s personality, watch a kiddo construct and decorate a gingerbread house. It tells its own unique story. The space smells of infinite vanilla frosting and the floor glittered with red hots, gumdrops, colored sugar, candy canes, and graham cracker crumbs. Certainly a kit would work wonderfully too! We started getting our gingerbread houses from Gingerbread Homes.

The tradition turned into something my sister always did with the kids and one year it crept into my mind that it could be the last. With a fresh cancer diagnosis of stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 29; we had just endured the waiting game of something not being right but not knowing specifically what it was. Now we knew and our stomachs were in our feet. She was staring down a relentless chemotherapy treatment schedule. A cocktail of jet fuel ready to inject each and every time heading in with the certainty that she would be knocked completely off her feet while having to find the courage and strength to get up knowing she would only be taken out again in another week. By the grace of a world beyond here and all of the science and medical professionals, we are on the celebratory side of it today. It is not lost on me how lucky I am to still have her just a quick text message away. I cannot talk long about it without that inevitable lump filling my throat and tears glossing over my eyes. I mean we are talking about lob haircuts now and it pulls me back to when I watched her beautiful rich chocolate waves of hair falling to the floor. I told myself I would document her journey through my photography and the pain was too much for me to bear. I really wish I could have withstood the painfulness through my camera lens. But because of that, I only have a very few photos of her during that time and of course one of them is is of her decorating away with the kids.

At the time, I was concerned about finding the right way for the kids to hear about her diagnosis; they were just two and five. This big seemingly complex and ominous abstract thing that didn’t have a scripted ending… do you know what is cool about children though? Most of the time, they don’t need the big picture. They just need the snapshot of here and now. I found following their lead in the conversation is the best direction. We gave them the truth in small amounts along the way, giving the information to answer their specific questions; kind of like a photo. We used books too. This gave them the opportunity to feel outside of the story and looking in. It’s a lot less threatening when we can start out by watching from the sidelines, gathering knowledge and strategies and most of all, hope and not alone.

This year, she will appear on my doorstep with bags full of icing and candy, ready for a parade of holiday songs, air thick of laughter and sweets, and hearts full of togetherness. Each gingerbread house decorating since that one that could have been the last, seems like a precious gift all in and of itself. I hold it very close realizing that this could have just as easily not been the chapter in our story. I get to vacuum up confetti…

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