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DUMC Tree of Hope: A good deed in a naughty world




DUMC Tree of Hope: A good deed in a naughty world**

With Halloween out of the way, the unwholesome clangor of the holiday season is free to burst upon us in its full glory--the meretricious caroling, the muttering over cauldrons on every corner, the snarling of salespeople. The miracle of Christmas is how we survive it without slashing our wrists. "Ah," we mutter, "If only we could find meaning in the predictable holiday orgies of beautiful people baring their teeth and feeding on canapes; if only we could think how to escape for awhile that humiliating potlatch where one demonstrates moral ascendancy by giving a bigger conch!" We take refuge as we can in clumsily homemade cards and the fruitcakes of friends, desperately smiling to remind ourselves that we are celebrating a festival of light.

Darkness is never far off. Were there any danger of forgetting it, we could linger for a moment over Congress' gormless get-tough-on-education policy, which is sure to bear fruit well into the 21st century in the form of high-school dropouts to fill our shiny new prisons. We could rehearse for the next generation our reasons for standing by while the Republican Revolution reversed virtually every piece of environmental legislation passed in the last 30 years. We could also bask in the glow from the 1000 points of light that will flash out this season as North Carolina joins the parade of 30-some states to legalize the carrying of concealed handguns. And if we were still suffering from Pollyanna's complaint, we could recall our indignation at the prospect of revamping the American health care system in favor of the little guy, the uninsured working family, and how we solid middle-class folk breathed a sigh of relief when the whole thing bombed. Oh, darkness is at hand all right.

Mind you, they say darkness can be healing, too. Could there be a better time than the nadir of the year to reconnect with our fellow creatures, forgive our own failures of compassion and vow to transcend our knack for ignoring opportunities to do good? For me, this season of long nights is also a time to remember fellow travelers who didn't make it this far and to search for practical ways to honor their memory through right action.

I lost my friend Rita last month. We knew each other through Duke's Cancer Patient Support Program, where we served on and fussed at the board, helped each other establish a new support group and laughed till we cried at stories about gruff physicians and gruffer patients. Whenever we parted, we used to touch each other goodbye--nothing as obtrusive as a hug or as formal as a handshake, just a hand resting on a shoulder for a moment.

No one expected her to die this year. In fact, Rita was in charge of the upcoming Tree of Hope ceremony at Duke, an annual event that involves stringing zillions of lights on a living tree in front of the Cancer Center and encouraging anybody whose life has been changed by cancer or whose family has been changed by cancer, or whose friends or colleagues or lovers have been changed by cancer, to gather, honor and remember. Those who choose to do so can "buy" a light by making a donation to the patient support program, which provides family counseling and lends out books and tapes on healing and dying both to grownups and children. You don't have to buy a light or have been affected by cancer to attend the ceremony. We cannot penetrate the darkness far, yet we reach out as we are able and I think it is only on the most intimate level that our long task of restoration can finally begin--with something as simple as extending a hand, choosing simplicity, practicing patience.

So next Sunday evening after dark, at about 7:00, the Tree of Hope will be lit in front of the Morris Building. Passersby may wonder at seeing the reflective band of survivors and children, doctors and nurses, counselors and friends who will gather there. When they pull the switch, I know at least one bulb will cut through the night in memory of Rita Goodman. It will not undo the crassness of the holiday season nor remove a gun from the hand of a teenager nor fix the health care mess, but if I am going to change the world, I have to start somewhere.

If you too should come next weekend, and if a stranger should touch you in the little crowd, it's okay. It will be nothing as obtrusive as a hug or as formal as a handshake--just a hand resting on your shoulder for a moment. Halloween's over. Merry Christmas.

Paul Baerman is a University employee.


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