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“We continued to thrive to the extent possible because an army of loved ones held us fast through the tortured holiday season.”

By John Duberstein

My wife, Nina, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2015. We were stunned and scared. But that was just the beginning.

Two days before Christmas that same year, we went to Duke for Nina’s regular radiation treatment. She’d been in excruciating pain for weeks, and was barely able to manage the car ride from Greensboro to Durham. At the hospital, Nina was in too much pain to get on the radiation table. We wound up waiting for hours in the ER, where doctors confirmed our worst fears: Nina’s cancer had spread to her vertebra, causing her back-breaking pain and signaling that her cancer was incurable. She was ultimately admitted for spinal surgery.

Nina and I looked at each other, bereft of words—a rarity in a marriage between a poet and a lawyer.

When we got the diagnosis, I remember an almost cinematic feeling of the floor falling away. Nina and I looked at each other, bereft of words—a rarity in a marriage between a poet and a lawyer.

Because Nina’s post-op was on Christmas Eve, I remember scrambling to arrange care for our kids. Freddy and Benny, who were eight and six at the time, stayed home with family, including Nina’s dad, Peter, a recent cancer widower himself.

Freddy had been diagnosed as a type-1 diabetic less than a year before—just days before his eighth birthday and the same week as Nina’s cancer diagnosis. His care had come to include carb counting, insulin dosing, and various other rituals not inherent to basic childcare. To top it all off, it was Christmas Eve, so Freddy and Benny needed a little more than their usual share of adult attention and ministrations.

But somehow, at least in my memory, getting our family coordinated was so easy it felt like a Christmas miracle. I use “coordinated” loosely because I mostly implored them to make everything okay without saying it—we were relying on our family to keep the world back home humming along while we faced the void opened up by Nina’s spinal tumor. I don’t even recall who did what. All I remember clearly is that whenever I called or texted, someone answered. All I had to do was ask and someone did it.

Not only did our people pull off Christmas with Nina and me largely absent, but that year was one to remember for the boys.

Not only did our people pull off Christmas with Nina and me largely absent, but that year was one to remember for the boys. They spent time with GrandPete (their grandfather) and Aunt Jennie—always a treat for both of them—and were showered with presents. Nina had gone all out to make up for that year of loss, diagnoses, and existential dread, and our families also spoiled the boys appropriately.

While Nina slept in the twilight of post-operative drugs, I came home to find a Christmas Eve meal already cooked and presents ready to be opened. I got to watch the boys open a few gifts and snapped some pictures to show Nina on my iPhone. We even called Nina before I headed back to Duke for the night—actually, we had to, because I wasn’t sure where she had hidden all the unwrapped Christmas loot.

My sister Jennie stayed at our house and bore the mantle of stand-in Santa most directly. While Nina and I were in the hospital, Jennie managed to scour the cupboards and closets of our house and set out everything worthy of Christmas morning to set the scene for the boys. After the flurry of wrapping paper and toys, our family brought the boys to the hospital to spend time with Nina. In so many ways, it wasn’t an ideal Christmas, but one thing we didn’t have to worry about—maybe the only thing—was our kids missing the magic of Christmas morning.

Nina came home right after Christmas. Her cousin Bonnie, an occupational therapist, arrived before New Year’s and brought a whole second wave of support with her. She gave Nina massages, cooked food, and entertained the boys. And, in yet another miracle coordinated by one of our best friends long after Santa’s sleigh had left town, friends came to our door daily with food.

By the end of the holidays, we had entered a whole new world—one in which it turned out Nina would only have one Christmas left. I don’t think I’ll ever know or understand what Nina was going through. Some things we really do and must endure alone. For Nina, the holidays had been a crucible of suffering followed by a New Year of facing imminent mortality. I’m in awe every time I think about how deep a well of resilience and sheer toughness she had.

But her resilience, along with our resilience as a couple and as a family, was not an individual act.

But her resilience, along with our resilience as a couple and as a family, was not an individual act. Thanks to Nina’s high pain threshold and the generosity of friends with a magnificent Parisian flat, we were able to celebrate my birthday in Paris just a month after Nina’s surgery. We were also able to spend Nina’s final Christmas taking the kids to Universal Studios. We continued to thrive to the extent possible because an army of loved ones, each suffering in their own way, held us fast through the whole tortured holiday season. 

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Image credit: Jessica Britton

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