Watermelons, watermelons, everywhere

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The quintessential summer fruit, seeds and all, is a metaphor for the sweetness of life and the bitterness of cancer.

By guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart

August is the only month without a holiday or calendar identity. It’s a lazy summer month with nothing much to guide you except warm weather.

One August, years ago, I wore a watermelon T-shirt to a family gathering. Coincidently, my brother Steve just happened to bring me a pair of watermelon socks. That started a tradition! Ever since, he has showered me with watermelon gifts for every birthday and Christmas. Watermelon place mats, dishes, bowls, cups, napkin rings, pot holders, candles, magnets. You get the idea? And these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head! I am sure I have forgotten some.

I have more watermelon stuff than some folks have for Christmas, so I started “watermelon month.” August had no decorating theme or color scheme, so I invented one.

Oh! A watermelon welcome mat for my doorway! I just remembered that one.

So every August, I’ve decorated with watermelon. When people came to see me for the first time, they’d say, “Wow! You must really like watermelons!” My close friends would say, “Oh, yeah! Watermelon time again!”  

Oh! A watermelon sweatshirt! That’s another one.

Well, terminal cancer got me thinking about ways to connect with all of my loved ones, and I started to give away my most symbolic possessions with love notes. I sent my watermelon stuff to Steve, his wife Marie and their daughter Elizabeth. It filled several large boxes, once I wrapped it in packing material and towels.

Oh! Watermelon towels! How could I forget those?

They were pretty surprised how much stuff I had accumulated over the years. (They never saw my home in August!) They have a lake house now, and are decorating the place with my watermelon items. I smile to know it reminds them of me!

Well, I’m still alive for another August! This type of cancer is a ticking bomb inside my body, set to go off in the next few months. The major warning sign is harsh pain after eating. Yet many factors can bring pain after eating--too much stress, too much fatigue, too much activity. I can’t do everything I’m tempted to do, otherwise, I’ll regret it when that eventual pain comes and reminds me that the cancer is in charge.

It’s a rocky road; not smooth or detour-free. When I do get some harsh pain, I never know if that means just a bump in the road…or the end of the road.

Doctors and nurses can’t offer any road map; they expected me to be gone over a year ago. They can’t explain what’s going on inside of me, much less predict what will happen next, or how much time I might have left. It’s uncharted territory.

So I take nothing for granted. Not a person, not a sunrise, not a single slice of watermelon. Everything is a blessing, because every last visit or phone call could indeed turn out to be my very last visit or phone call.

It’s like August--no holiday, no set traditions. I made up the watermelon theme. Living while dying is like that. No tradition to follow, no expectations to count on. We make it up as we go along.

The watermelon color scheme varies. Sometimes it’s red and green, like Christmas; sometimes it’s more pinkish, like Valentine’s Day, with a green border. But with black seeds, the sweetness of every bite interrupted with the need to spit out seeds. Life with cancer is like that, too. If you bite off too much, you end up biting into the rind. You realize you’ve gone too far, and you regret it.

One of my favorite pictures of my dad is with his friend Justin, minutes after performing surgery together, obviously happy and proud of their accomplishments. Red blood all over their green scrubs. Those same watermelon colors in a different context.

Remember the watermelon welcome mat? It was on my closet floor, under my other seasonal welcome mats. I forgot I had it; I never sent it back to Steve. It’s at my door now, a bright reminder of family and fun and what August and cancer are all about, forging our path without landmarks or guideposts.

The best part of having close friends and family is that we don’t have to forge our path alone. Whatever happens, we support each other and we keep going, putting one foot in front of the other. And in my case, you can be sure, my feet will be clad in brightly colored watermelon socks.


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better, and she has a novel, Made To Write, available at the link. Her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.