My Favourite Things
Finding joy during the holiday season
A Midnight Madness Sale at the city’s premier shopping mall! Friday night only, with Boxing Day prices to boot! That promotion popped up on my tablet this December morning.
Years ago, even if I were exhausted, I would have dropped everything and shopped after the kids were in bed, believing I would find more surprises to add to the magic of Christmas morning. Today, I know I’ll be staying away from the mall, grateful that my son taught me what true joy is during the holiday season.
My lesson started to unfold in 1994 when my fun-loving three-year-old, Justin, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of soft tissue cancer in his lower leg. When his dad, Henry, and I discovered the lump, Christian, his older brother, was five. His baby sister, Annik, was just five weeks old.
That marked the beginning of four-plus years of surgeries, on-again-off-again chemo and radiation, experimental treatments, tests and checkups. We spent nearly 400 nights at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). We survived the ordeal thanks to the dedicated care at CHEO, the continuous support of friends and neighbours, and the unwavering devotion of my family.
Justin also proved to be amazingly resilient. Everyone referred to him as Sunshine — more of an observation about his positive nature than his golden hair, which was often falling out in clumps or missing altogether.
Finally, in 1998, Justin was in remission. His blond hair grew back, and his cheeks became full and rosy. He returned to school and the usual kid activities. Pretending to be lead singer Nick Carter, Justin danced to the Backstreet Boys, his clumsy brace never affecting his dance moves. There were occasional routine visits to the cancer clinic, but life was otherwise normal.
Later that year, not long after Justin’s eighth birthday, we received unnerving news from the specialists at CHEO. “We want you to know that the children who were administered the experimental chemo Justin received last year are now being diagnosed with leukemia. Bring him back to the clinic if he’s not well.”
Sure enough, at the start of 1999, Justin began looking pale and feeling tired. A bone marrow spinal test confirmed our worse fear: leukemia.
When I broke the news to Justin that he had to go back to the hospital for more treatment, his selfless reaction was: “It’s a good thing it’s me and not Annik or Christian. At least I know how to deal with it.”
Justin was re-admitted to CHEO for an eventual bone marrow transplant. He and I settled into a small isolation room in the cancer ward.
As time trickled by, Justin and I played cards and listened to music. I read him his favourite books. As a family, we snuggled as best we could on his hospital bed to watch home movies reliving trips and family parties.
When he felt well enough, Justin played tricks on nurses, spraying them with colourful Spiderman web-goo. He never missed the Wheel of Fortune. Justin had a crush on Vanna White and always had an opinion about what she wore.
Rather than lie alone on the small mattress we’d brought to his room, I liked to snuggle up to Justin. I wrapped my arms around his frail body, careful to avoid the spaghetti of tubes that delivered the fluids, medications and concoctions he needed.
During those precious moments, huddled together across from the nurses’ station, a bright animal-print sheet taped to the hallway window to give us privacy, we had many deep conversations.
“Justin, tell me more about what you want to do later in life,” I asked him one day. “Do you still want to be a firefighter?”
“No,” he replied. “When I die, I want to come back to help Nick Carter sing and dance. I also want to come back as a bird,” he continued matter-of-factly. “That way, when I want to see what you’re doing, all I’ll have to do is peek through the window.”
The innocence, courage and foreboding of his plan made me laugh and cry. Every moment we shared after that seemed even more precious. Justin and I started to make lists together.
“Tell me the ten things that have made you happiest in life. I’m going to write down your Favourite Things in my diary,” I said, opening my journal.
I was sure his list would include our wonderful family trips. I was certain he would mention the fancy electric car we bought him for Christmas so that he could get around the neighbourhood with his friends after his calf muscle had been removed. I was positive he would talk about our annual Christmas extravaganza with the mountain of beautifully wrapped gifts under the tree — the presents that took me weeks of running around to buy, including those at Midnight Madness events.
What he told me that February day was the opposite of what I could ever have imagined.
My Favourite Things
1. Feeling the sun on my face
2. Playing Duck-Duck-Goose at family parties
3. Getting my back scratched by Dada
4. Having my feet massaged
5. Someone reading or singing to me
6. Playing with Christian and Annik
7. Dancing to the music of the Backstreet Boys
8. Making apple pie with Maman
9. Eating the apple pie
10. Drinking a glass of cold chocolate milk — at home.
The simple things and precious family time brought Justin more happiness than anything money could buy.
I vowed, at that very moment, to change my own priorities. Going forward, I promised myself I would find joy as Justin had done, especially during the holidays.
Justin's condition deteriorated within days of that fateful conversation. Seven weeks after his admission, Doctors informed us that he no longer qualified for the transplant, and no other treatment options were available. There were no pediatric palliative care facilities at the time, so Justin would live his final days at CHEO. We were heartbroken.
A day or two later, when it was still dark out, Justin woke up from his semi-conscious state and whispered one word to me in his raspy voice, “Maison.” He wanted to go home. The head nurse vowed to make it happen. My brother, a doctor, and friends who were nurses generously agreed to help care for Justin at home.
At noon hour that same day, an ambulance brought Justin home, where a virtual hospital room had miraculously been set up in our master bedroom. Now that he was home, I wanted Justin – even in his drug-induced sleep – to experience as many of his favourite things as possible.
Over a period of five days and nights, family and friends lovingly took turns sitting or lying next to Justin, holding his hand or gently rubbing his back. I sang him lullabies and read his favourite stories. Backstreet Boys videos played in the background. Henry gently massaged his feet. We dribbled cold chocolate milk in the corner of his parched mouth. The afternoon sun shone through the large west-facing window and warmed his body.
There was so much love and kindness around Justin and our family, it felt like our home glowed.
As the sun was setting on March 3rd, almost five years after the original diagnosis, Justin’s brave fight ended. He took his last breath, nestled between Henry and me and surrounded by family. At that moment, we were sharing a funny story. It made total sense to me that Justin, who loved to laugh, would have chosen that moment.
A few minutes later, I noticed little Annik craning her neck to look under his small body.
“What are you looking at, sweetie?” I asked her as I lifted her in my arms.
“I’m looking for his angel wings,” she replied.
Every December since then, I imagine Justin — either as a bird or sporting colourful angel wings—peeking through my window and seeing that I’ve adopted his happiness formula. I keep things simple and prioritize connections rather than shopping during the holiday season. He will have also guessed by now that I indulge in my own Favourite Things at Christmas time.
This year, Justin will see me baking a salted caramel apple cake for Annik and Christian, their partners and my step-daughters. He will be delighted to find my beau giving me a relaxing foot massage as I sip a nice glass of wine, Christmas lights twinkling in the decked-out Balsam fir next to me.
He will be happy to hear me singing Christmas carols with the entire Lamoureux clan and then thrilled to watch us play Duck-Duck Goose around our festive dinner table, an activity that should, he would argue, be on everyone’s list of Favourite Things.
And he will smile when he finds me enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun, feeling peaceful, grateful, and so very loved.
When my little Sunshine flies away at the end of this holiday season, perhaps on his way to help his boy band idol sing and dance, he will be happy to have contributed to my Christmas joy.