Ideally, your cancer basket will include one handmade food item: cookies or, in the Midwest, maybe bars. -- Lisa McKhann
by Lisa McKhann
Once illness like cancer barges through the front door, the family inside never again steps back across that threshold quite the same. The street, the trees, the neighbors, the world stand forever askew. It's a world of icebergs and vertigo, megalomania and insomnia. Families shouldn't be left to squint. Instead, they should find on the stoop this simple woven basket of goodies: a Welcome Basket.
On top, tucked under a silk or velvet ribbon, lies a printed greeting from the Neighborhood Welcome Committee with a list of neighbors' phone numbers. The fact that it's a form letter is to remind you that your family is not the only one living here in Crisistown.
There is a listing of three kinds of nearby services: the spiritual, the practical and the official. For the spirit, area church services, but also maybe tai chi and yoga, reiki and sand-play therapy. Practical services begin with a local pharmacist; then, neighbor kids who baby-sit, mow lawns, walk dogs; an accountant to help you juggle your medical bills. Finally, official services like the fire station, police, the ER. Your family will feel better knowing a few authority figures are on duty nearby. Everything is not lawless chaos. We have some civilizing elements - fire hydrants, for instance.
Your Welcome Basket includes a map of emergency responders and of your own pressure relief valve: nature. The map locates all the local parks where you can step onto dirt, not concrete; where you notice bird sounds, not traffic.
Done right, your basket includes an assortment of "Do Not Disturb" and "Keep Out" signs. Door-hangers are useful. "Do Not Disturbs" can be alternated with various forms of "Welcome." "I'm in the Garden" sends visitors 'round back when you feel like fresh air and company.
Ideally, your cancer basket will include one handmade food item: cookies or, in the Midwest, maybe bars. An unsliced loaf of whole-wheat bread is ideal; hand-formed and miraculously risen, yet earthy, hearty and healthy - like you. This is the reminder that at core, your body is full of all the same sustaining powers.
Your basket includes something for each member of your family, even the cat or dog; a note about pick-up basketball; an invitation to stitch-n-bitch; a request for kids to join a bike ride; coupons to a local restaurant. Because, though whole families arrive here together, each individual moves uniquely through your illness.
There will be a small, ribbon-tied bundle of thank-you cards in your basket. You will find many opportunities to thank the people who share their love.
At the very bottom, you will find a short, hand-written note. Compared with the tangible specificity of the basket full of very real stuff, words themselves stand in for meaning. They are space holders. A line or two in a person's own hand, that is the writing's power. Deep moments of contemplation lie behind the most simply formed words, conjuring great love.
Lisa McKhann lives in Duluth. After treatment for ovarian cancer, she began Reflecting Pools, online reflective writing and selective reading for survivors. www.projectlulu.org
Editor's Note: This essay was published in a longer format in the book "Upon Arrival of Illness" (Savage Press). Used with permission. WelcomeBasket