Missing Tracy: Making it through our first Christmas without her

Christmas was always a special time for Lucy van Oldenbarneveld and her sister, Tracy. Now Tracy is gone, and the people she left behind are figuring out how to make it through the season without her.

CBC Ottawa's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld lost her sister to cancer in October

Tracy loved Christmas. The endless preparation, the shopping and especially the wrapping. If there was a Nobel Prize for gift wrapping, Tracy would have been on her way to Stockholm.

In high school my younger sister worked at Kresge's department store in Hamilton, where she took as many shifts as she could. Most of this cash would be spent at Cheapies Records and Tapes on Duran Duran, Bob Marley, English Beat, David Bowie and U2. The rest would go toward Christmas presents.

The scent of Anaïs Anaïs will always remind me of Tracy, and will always be one of my fanciest Christmas gifts.

She'd spend weeks wrapping gifts and preparing cards for her friends. One year they all got big tubs of flavoured popcorn from Kernels and dewberry soap from The Body Shop. Her room smelled delicious. Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano played in an endless loop on her ghetto blaster.

I couldn't believe it when she got me the perfume I really wanted, expensive stuff for a 16-year-old earning a part-timer's paycheque. The scent of Anaïs Anaïs will always remind me of Tracy, and will always be one of my fanciest Christmas gifts.

Growing up, there was never much money for Christmas. A single mother, three kids. The food basket from the church came each year, and it was all so exciting to open the big cardboard box overflowing with Dutch raisin bread, pepernoten, Bird's custard powder and marzipan.

Then there were the chocolate letters: an L for me, a T for Tracy and an M for our brother, Michael. We were allowed to eat them immediately. Our mum hid the rest of the loot, rationing it to last the whole month.

Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were our favourite Christmas shows, obviously, but the Andy Williams holiday special was OK, too. We'd sit on top of the round coffee table to be that much closer to the TV when Donny Osmond appeared.

When Tracy had her own kids, the traditions continued. The tree would be lugged up from the basement and given a prominent spot, decorated and lit. There wasn't much room in her tiny kitchen, so Christmas baking spilled into the dining room and living room. Everyone she loved would get a tin of homemade baking. Tracy wasn't a frequent chef, but the holiday transformed her. By then, Wham's Last Christmas and Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? formed the holiday soundtrack.

This will be our first Christmas without Tracy.

Life sometimes throws you a grenade. In shock, you put out your hand and catch it, then watch your world blow up in slow motion. For me, that's what happened on Dec. 20, 2017.

I curled up on the floor to stop myself from passing out. I needed to calm her down. She was terrified. I tried not to vomit.

I was at work at CBC, cutting a promo in the studio, when my phone rang. It was Tracy, sobbing, screaming. I couldn't understand what she was saying. I went into my manager's office and closed the door. I told Tracy to breathe and tell me what was going on.

Her shoulder had been bothering her for a few weeks, and her doctor had just called with the X-ray results. The breast cancer she had been diagnosed with seven months earlier was now in her bones. I felt light-headed. I needed to breathe. I curled up on the floor to stop myself from passing out. I needed to calm her down. She was terrified. I tried not to vomit.

Part of the shock came from our belief that she was on the mend. Her chemotherapy and surgeries were done, and there was only radiation left. After that, she planned to get back to her life.

Tracy and I were born five years apart. We both wrote with our left hands and we both found cancer in our right breasts. She was diagnosed a year after I finished treatment. We were tested for the breast cancer gene, but nothing was found. Doctors simply chalked it up to bad luck, nothing more complicated than that. But we were confident that because my treatment had gone smoothly, hers would, too.

When Tracy's cancer turned out to be aggressive and terminal, we were cruelly reminded of what little control we have over this life.

Kids were always at the centre of Tracy's world. She knew very early that she wanted to work with them, and became an early childhood educator at the same inner-city school we both attended.

She never had much success choosing men, but those relationships did give her two amazing children: a son, now 21, and a daughter, now 13.

Deciding to raise the kids on her own was as crazy as it was brave, but Tracy was never afraid.

When she realized the cancer wasn't responding to any of the treatments, the thought of not being there to see her son and daughter grow up and find their own paths filled her with a deep and painful sadness.

After we learned that the cancer had spread to her bones and liver, Tracy and my niece moved into our mum's place, a seniors village on Hamilton Mountain. It wasn't exactly a happening spot for a teenager, but she soon found her new bus route to school, and even though she missed her neighbourhood pals she never complained.

I was able to take long stretches of leave to be Tracy's main caregiver and cheerleader. The community of friends in whom she had invested all that popcorn and dewberry soap all those years ago came through for her, too, and they never wavered. All her friends, old and new, stood by her throughout. There were regular visits and meals, not to mention the socks, candles and vanilla chai frappés.

My partner, Andy, joined us on weekends, and our backs and shoulders slowly adjusted to the ancient mattress of the pullout couch.

Tracy and our mum loved scouring the store flyers and finding sales, Mum in her automated recliner chair and Tracy on the couch beside her, the weather channel on in the background. Tracy was as happy as I'd seen her in a long time.

Over the previous decade or so, Tracy's anxiety and depression had caused her to isolate herself more and more. Often, she didn't see her own successes. But over her last 18 months she had come to see herself in a different light. She found her essence, her courage and her deep strength, the strength that had always been there.

There was setback after setback, and Tracy's strength was put to the ultimate test. It was a gruelling marathon of fear. She never got a break.

Throughout it all, a spark of humour remained. When the cancer fractured her femur in February, she was in hospital for two weeks. During her stay, there was a huge dump of snow. As she was being wheeled down the hall for X-rays one day, she spotted her favourite nurses and yelled, "They finally arrived to take me tobogganing!"

We made plans. We hoped. She never lost hope.

There were times when I wondered whether she really understood how sick she was. Now I know she did understand; she just chose to be present and appreciate every moment she had left with jokes and laughs and the endless GIFs she sent.

During a family meeting in July, her doctor was blunt: the cancer was galloping ahead and there wasn't much time left. Tracy talked about her daughter's graduation from Grade 8 the following June, and about Christmas before that. She'd never been on a cruise and wanted to go south. Christmas would be a good time to go, wouldn't it? Maybe she could visit Jamaica again. We made plans. We hoped. She never lost hope.

On Sept. 21, Tracy's son turned 21, and she and the kids went out for their favourite Thai food. Her appetite had always been legendary. She loved buffets and second helpings. But now her favourite flavours were making her nauseous, and she couldn't eat much. She was starting to look jaundiced. Her liver was giving up. She got some chicken satay to take home.

Tracy always loved storms, and early on the morning of her last full day there was a magnificent one, with wind and rain and lightning. I opened the windows wide and rain soaked the carpet. Tracy was slipping in and out of consciousness, but I knew she could hear the gusts and feel the electricity in the air. "Ohhhhh," she said, opening her eyes. Then thunder clapped and the sky flashed. "That's amazing," she whispered.

Tracy took her last breath at 1:39 a.m. on Oct. 5, 2018, at the Emmanuel House hospice. I was beside her, holding her hand. I told her not to worry, I would take care of her kids. She was 47 years old.

I've heard grief described as love with no place to go. Grief doesn't end, it just changes. It is the price we pay for love.

We will set a place for Tracy at the Christmas table. Just because she's not here doesn't mean she's not with us.

It's up to us now to figure out a way to carry on without her. Many days it seems too hard, because she's left behind such a big hole. Tracy's son is making his own life in Hamilton, but her daughter is living here in Ottawa now. She's a piece of Tracy that's staying with us.

Getting through this first Christmas in our new family format, we are constantly reminded of our sadness, but also of our blessings.

One of my niece's favourite Marvel movies is Doctor Strange. In the movie, the character Ancient One says that "death is what gives life meaning because we know our days are numbered."

We will set a place for Tracy at the Christmas table. Just because she's not here doesn't mean she's not with us. 

We'll cry. Our hearts will break some more and we'll give thanks for the time we had with our brave and gentle Tracy. Then we'll have a second helping of dessert in her honour.


Lucy van Oldenbarneveld is the host of CBC Ottawa News.