Light in the Cancer Darkness

Yesterday was Richard’s every-two-week check-up with his Oncology doc, Dr. Catherine Klein. Dr. Klein is  Chief of Oncology and Hematology at the VA Medical Center, but you’d never know it by her manner. She comes to the waiting room herself to fetch us. She listens. She’s unpretentious and thoughtful, with a wry sense of humor.

“How are you?” she asked. It wasn’t a pleasantry: she scanned us carefully in turn as we answered.

Richard admitted to increasing fatigue: “I’m napping more and more often.”

She nodded her head. “Fatigue is normal. What we’re doing to your body with the radiation and chemo tires you out. Napping is good.”

Once we were seated, she swiveled to the computer screen to look at his most recent blood test results from after he had completed his first two weeks of treatment. “You’re doing well,” she said, clearly pleased as she explained that his white blood cell and platelet counts are normal.

Richard wanted to know what his most recent MRI looked like, particularly the traumatic swelling in his right temporal lobe that caused him to hallucinate birds at the beginning of this journey with brain cancer.

“The two sides of your brain don’t look the same–the brain surgery changes things there,” she said. But the edema was essentially gone, she added, and there were no signs of new tumor growth.

“You’re looking good,” she said. “Keep that up.”

After the appointment was over, we threaded our way through the crowded lobby of the VA Medical Center hand-in-hand, uplifted by the news. (So uplifted, in fact, that we forgot to go to the pharmacy to pick up the next batch of his chemo drugs and had to come back later. Ah well.)


We want to thank you all for your support. It helps immeasurably as we struggle to keep up our spirits, keep Richard healthy, and do what we need to do to nurture ourselves through this time in the cancer cloister. (That’s Molly above, sending a message of love from her computer at work–how sweet can you get?) This is not a walk in the park, any way you look at it. But it could be much, much worse, and your expressions of love and support contribute in positive ways.

That’s why I’m going to ask you a special favor: This coming Monday, December 21st, is winter solstice, the shortest day of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere. That day marks not only the return of the sun’s light
and warmth, but also a personal milestone, the halfway point in
Richard’s radiation treatment for brain cancer.

For more than a decade, Richard and I have celebrated the passing of winter’s longest nights and the turning of the Earth toward light and life by lighting the darkness: lining the sidewalks on our block with dozens of luminarias made of paper bags, plus some sand and votive candles.

At dusk on solstice, we invite family and friends to help light the luminarias one by one. The tiny flames in their translucent bags burn through the night, heralding the sun’s return at dawn. It’s a ritual that touches us deeply. As I wrote in my weekly commentary:

Holiday lights are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates spiritual and intellectual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.

As I strike a match to light a wick in the chill of solstice dusk, and place a flaming votive candle on its bed of sand, I think about the lessons luminarias teach. The bags by themselves are flimsy and flammable, the candles too small for robust light, the sand simply grit underfoot.

Yet together, candle, paper bag, and sand combine to illuminate the darkness: each slender wick feeds liquid wax to fuel the flame; the paper walls shelter the flame from wind and snow, and their very flimsiness diffuses light; the sand grounds the bag and prevents the flame from incinerating the paper that protects it.

Inside their flammable shelters the candles burn steadily, hour after hour, through the darkness of a long winter night. When dawn comes, the ethereal lamps are still glowing softly, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience and beauty inherent in the simplest of materials.

Luminarias show us the power of simple gestures. These tiny lights illuminate our metaphorical darkness as well, lighting the way into a new year. Richard and I won’t be able to hold our luminaria celebration this year, because we’re in Denver for Richard’s treatment.

What’s the favor? If you feel so moved, light the darkness wherever you are. All you need are some slightly-larger-than-lunch-bag-size paper bags, clean sand, plus 12-hour votive candles Fold the rims of the bags over once to hold the bag open, and put a shovel-full of sand in each, along with a votive candle. At dusk on Monday, set your luminarias on a non-flammable surface, light them, and think of Richard and me.


As those tiny flames flicker and glow in their translucent bags in the darkness of that longest winter night, Richard and I will turn our faces to the star-spangled heavens and send our our wish:

May Richard be whole. May Richard be healthy. May Richard be happy. May all beings be whole, healthy, and happy.

And our spirits will glow, lit by the support of those we love and the commonplace grace of small candles burning in simple paper bags.

Blessings to each of you!