Make It Pink: How to Make a 'Millie Box'comments (18) October 7th, 2009
As a young boy growing up in Michigan, I remember it was an 8-year-old friend who first told me what cancer was: "Cancer is where you get sick and there's no cure. Then you get sad and your skin turns a funny color and everybody cries whenever they see you."
This little gem of a definition was likely a hybrid of some overheard adult conversation coupled with a few astute observations on the part of my friend. As absurd as it may now sound, this was the definition of cancer that I carried around with me for the first 19 years of my life. Until I met Millie.
She was just a woman I would pass on my way home from my college job as a waiter. She would be out in her garden or watering her yard when I walked by after my shift and, as people do in the Midwest, I would wave or say hello or stop, momentarily, and remark upon the fine or poor weather we'd been having. It's not as if we had much in common. She was 40 (incredibly old to me at the time) and I was 19. She'd been divorced and now lived alone, while I was living in a dorm with 1,200 other students and was obsessed with figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.
Over time, our acquaintance grew and within six months I was stopping to sit on her porch with her or sit at her kitchen table for a spell while she cooked. It's fun having friends who are older than you, but it's especially fun to do so when you're young.
In February of the following year, Millie was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she shared this news with me, I started to cry and my first question was, "How long do you have to live?" (Thank God for the gloriously mature who put up with the ridiculously young!) "As long as I like, I suppose," was her answer.
Given the definition of cancer I was operating under (see above), it all seemed terrible and horrible and frightening and I started to pull away a bit. I stopped by less often and always had an excuse ready as to why I couldn't stay longer. In truth, it was very sad seeing her and thinking she was dying and not knowing how to control that outcome (ah, youth, always certain things can be controlled).
Millie must have sensed that I was uncomfortable, she must have known I felt helpless, because she started asking me to do things for her: mow her lawn, go shopping for her, take out her trash on Thursday nights. I, of course, was grateful to have something to DO, some task that let me feel like I was helping without having to actually face up to the situation at hand.
One day, as I was coming home from work and hoping Millie was not in her yard so I could sneak past her house without talking, I found her at the edge of her yard, waiting for me. She said she needed a box, about 8 inches square and almost as deep. She had a lot of pill bottles and ointments and creams, all things related to her treatment and she needed someplace to put them. She couldn't stand having them on her nightstand because, as she said, "I wake up every morning and the first thing I see are all those bottles telling me, 'You're not going to win,' 'This is going to kill you,' 'None of this is working.'"
So I found her a nice sturdy box and I painted some brightly colored flowers on it to help make it look cheery. She said, "It's almost perfect," and she started to cry a little.
I didn't see the box I'd made for her again for many years. Then, one day she pulled it out of a closet and asked me if I remembered making it for her. I looked at it closely. It was exactly as I had painted it save for one minor change. Millie had written ten words across the top of the box with a wide, black marker. It read: "I am the gardener. Cancer is the weed. I win."
So today, in honor of Millie and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought a gift box would be in order. Something pretty that could be loaded up with all manner of creams and ointments and herbal concoctions and brought to a friend. Once the contents are gone, it can double as a bedside caddy for all those awful, ugly, and depressing pill bottles that are part and parcel of every cancer patient's life.
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