Learning how to manage holiday expectations in the face of a diagnosis

back of a seled pink holiday envelope

By Lisa Doggett

“Here we are! Let’s go get Christmas stamps,” I said to the kids, as I parked in front of the post office in downtown Austin, feigning enthusiasm. I knew the lines would be horrible, and I would be impatient, and taking two toddlers anywhere was invariably difficult.

But this errand also brought a little spark of holiday nostalgia, of warm childhood memories, of better times. 

I needed that connection to the past, that glimmer of hope. Not quite a month before, I had faced the unthinkable: a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. It was a life sentence—at age 36—with a weird neurologic disease known to be a leading cause of disability in young adults. It was the kind of chronic condition that I, a health nut and family physician, never expected. The subsequent weeks had brought MRIs, a spinal tab, blood tests, IVs, and doctors’ visits. I was still battling dizziness and visual changes, but my job as a mom didn’t stop. Somehow, I still thought I needed to send holiday cards.

The line for the automated machine was much shorter than the line to an actual human postal worker, but it was still daunting. I took my place at the end, shifting two-year-old Clara to my left side and letting go of her sister’s hand. Four-year-old Ella spotted Santa decorations on a large glass window and wandered towards them. Clara squirmed. “Down!” she commanded. I set her on the scuffed tile floor.

I watched as the person first in line pulled package after package out of her big plastic bag. It reminded me of a magic trick I’d seen at Esther’s Follies, a popular sketch comedy club on Sixth Street. In the act, just when you thought the bag was empty, one more impossibly large item was removed—an umbrella, a crutch, a set of golf clubs. But this woman didn’t have a magician’s finesse and speed. She kept pushing buttons on the machine, sighing in exasperation, inserting her credit card, and finally slapping a sticker on the package and pulling out another box. I was sure golf clubs must be in there somewhere.

The girls were antsy. Clara joined her sister near the decorations, pointing, shouting “Santa!” Ella tried to pick her up, but Clara resisted, and they barely missed being smashed by the automatic door. 

“Clara, Sweetie, come here!” I said, noting that now two more people had gathered behind me in line. 

Clara ignored me. She ran across the room, unconstrained, laughing. 

My MS dizziness had improved since its onset in early November, but I could still feel it: an unpleasant buzz, clouding my thinking, making everything harder. It lingered like a patient who has “one more thing” to discuss long after the visit should have ended. I was afraid it would never go away. Parenting was already exhausting, already the hardest thing I’d ever done. Now it seemed impossible. I let Clara go.

Frosty the Snowman blared through unseen speakers, and I tried to decipher the words so I could sing it, at Ella’s request, later that evening. Remembering the old cartoon movie, I pictured Frosty, racing through the snowy village, chased by joyful children. This was no village, but it hadn’t stopped Clara from turning into Frosty, dashing around the post office, getting increasingly giddy in parallel with my own escalating embarrassment. After nearly slipping, she jumped behind a pair of orange cones that blocked a dark section of the post office under renovation.

She was oblivious, disobedient, wild. I was inattentive, incompetent. Surely that’s what everyone was thinking.

“Clara, you’re not supposed to go back there,” I said. 

She skipped out from behind the barricade, then jumped back again, taunting me. I grabbed Ella’s hand. “Help me catch your sister,” I whispered. Then I turned to the person behind me. “One sec.” 

I stepped away, mortified, to scoop up my unruly child. 

“Clara! This isn’t a game!” I lunged, grabbing her around the waist and carrying her sideways, screaming, back to the line.

As my upside-down child struggled to escape, I stepped out of my place and faced the people ahead of me. Everyone had things to do, and I didn’t like to ask for favors. I was ashamed. But I was dizzy, worn out, desperate. “I’m so sorry, but could I possibly go next?” I asked, hoisting Clara up again. “I’m just getting stamps. No packages. It’ll just take a second.” I tried to smile, hoping that I didn’t come across as needy, or worse, entitled.

The young woman at the front of the line pulled a fancy wallet from her fancy handbag and fiddled with some bills. Looking at me, she shrugged. “That’s all I’m getting too,” she said, then turned around.

Of course. This was the way my life was now, the way it would always be.

I was near tears.

Have mercy, I silently pleaded. I can’t control these kids, but I’m trying. I have MS. Each day I wake up terrified. I wanted to ask her to show a little charity, to remind her that it was Christmas, that maybe one day she might need help, and the laws of karma were not on her side. 

I also wanted to punch her in the face. 

As a child, I was devastated to learn Santa Claus isn’t real. As an adult, I discovered long ago that the perfect Christmas isn’t real either. It can never live up to the hype and expectation. The constant reminder of how the holidays are “supposed” to be is disheartening. It makes reality seem inadequate, highlighting our deficiencies, scolding us if we don’t live in a state of constant merriment.

But now, twelve years later, I don’t always change the station when I hear Andy Williams belt out the words to “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I still want to argue with him: What about when there’s a global pandemic and loved ones can’t be near? Are hearts still glowing? Is it still the hap-happiest season of all? But I can laugh at the holiday songs. They are not a personal afront. They are a myth.

Since my diagnosis with MS, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations, to find silver linings, to live with uncertainty. Those lessons have served me well during the pandemic and have helped me reframe my perspective, to see the holidays as a time for an extra dose of grace and charity, for patience with others and especially ourselves. Looking back through that lens, I can forgive the woman with the fancy handbag who wouldn’t let me cut in line. Perhaps she was rushing off to care for an elderly relative or help a friend. Perhaps she was dealing with her own heartbreak or health crisis. 

And I can forgive myself for asking for a favor that would have saved only a few minutes and inconvenienced others. I can accept my imperfections as a parent—now of two teenagers—and a person. I can skip making gingerbread houses this year and leave the garlands in the garage. I can even avoid that trip to the post office, pay the extra convenience fee, and just buy stamps online. 

Lisa Doggett lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of a memoir, Up the Down Escalator: A Doctor Navigates Disease and Disorder, about her transformation from family physician to patient after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (seeking publication).

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