When you have cancer, people give you things: ginger tea, an Insta Pot, a silver horse on a sterling chain, a blender for healthy milkshakes, a book of Buddhist musings, a ceramic angel with ruby wings.
They bring you gemstones and crystals: white quartz, blue topaz. A bottle full of frankincense in the shape of a bird. They call you beautiful and brave. Make you out to be a heavyweight. Give you a t-shirt that says, “F I G H T E R,” which you use as a blanket, curled up in the corner thinking of faster ways to die.
Some people are afraid of you. They leave gifts on your doorstep and slip away: Rainbow-colored cards, a diary with a sparkling pen, an energy candle that smells of myrrh. The gifts pile up on your kitchen table — small talismans of hope, orphans of kindness, an effigy you light on fire, leaning in to let the flames turn your face to ash.
They bring you food you’ll never eat: pots of soup, mounds of pasta, warm bread. A box of pastel candy hearts because it’s Valentine’s Day: Be Kind, You Rock, Kiss Me.
They give you advice: go vegan; drink colloidal silver; sleep upside down like a bat; remember to be thankful; things happen for a reason; just tell those cancer cells to fuck off.
Go fuck yourself, I mutter, as I puke and ponder the gold-speckled fabric of my son’s face, the gray swirl of his eyes, the desperate reach of his fingers as I shuffle past him with my palms full of lost hair.
I slip a Fentanyl lollipop into my mouth, twirl it across my parched tongue, and freefall from the cliffs of my pain. My son says, remember when we swam the English Channel? Our arms sliced the water like samurai swords. And I remember a quarry jump at night as a teen. I dove into darkness, flailed through silence, while adrenalin drenched my nerves like kerosene.
Morning is my son’s breath fluttering beside my ear. Wake up, Mama, he says. My eyes feel like cellophane sheets. He pulls back the curtains of my cave and points to a liquid sky swimming in pink. He crawls into the bed beside me. I can feel his heart beating with fury and fear.
I pull up the corners of my fleece blanket, soft as rabbit’s fur, wrapping the two of us up in its radiating heat. It is the color of arctic dusk, furnace flames, the slow bleed of an aging bruise.
I love this blanket, he says, so soft and warm. So pretty! Who gave it to you?
I remember the stranger who brought it to me yesterday. His eyes were amber and green. When I opened the door, he smiled and held it out for me.
EXCLUSIVE: BACKSTORY for ‘Gifts’
“Gifts” was inspired by Raymond Carver’s classic, “A Small, Good Thing,” a story rich in tragedy, but ultimately about the healing power of kindness. When a young girl in my community was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I got caught up in the collective devastation everyone felt for her and her family. There were people crying at the ice cream shop, organizing Go Fund Me campaigns; someone made bright purple t-shirts with her name on them, and I would see these shirts around town, a flash of purple in the local Target or across the field at my son’s soccer practice. Word got out that people were buying her little gifts or sending food to the house, and I wanted to buy her something. I didn’t know her at all, but I was overwhelmed with the desire to give her something. I agonized over what it would be. Should my gift be practical? Symbolic? Inspirational?
I started to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of all those gifts, those small gestures of kindness. No doubt some gifts were awkward, unintentionally callous, random, even burdensome, but some, I assume, were helpful, a source of comfort and calm.
The narrator in “Gifts” isn’t a young girl, but an adult, a mother, and she’s struggling with whether she even wants to survive her cancer. It would be easier just to give in. The gifts surrounding her are constant reminders of this struggle. She doesn’t really like the fleece blanket; she describes its color as “the slow bleed of an aging bruise,” but her son loves it, and so the blanket begins to illuminate the complexity of her struggle and remind her that her son needs her to stay. For me, the blanket symbolizes the collective comfort we all glean from gestures of kindness in times of tragedy.
Jamy Bond’s work has appeared in Emerge, Furious Gravity: DC Women Writers, The Rumpus, The Sun, Wigleaf, XRAY, The Washington Post and on NPR’s The Sound of Writing. She earned an MFA from George Mason University where she cofounded the journal So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art. Find her online at jamybond.com