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How Her Granddaughter Taught Her to See the Beauty in Dark Times

The girl’s childlike wonder helped them all deal with her sister’s cancer journey.

 

Illustration of an angel holding a candy cane; By Tim Zeltner
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I’d made the drive to visit my sister, Mandi, so many times, I could practically do it on autopilot. That gave me plenty of time to think about all she was going through. Mandi was 34, with two young children, and had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It wasn’t fair.

I turned at the edge of town, barely glancing at the landscape around me. There wasn’t much to see this time of year. The once colorful leaves had all fallen from the trees, leaving them black and bare. It was a troubling reflection of what Mandi was going through, the joyful things in her life dropping away one by one.

“Are we almost there, Grandma?”

I glanced into the rearview mirror. I’d nearly forgotten my young granddaughter was in the car with me. She’d been sitting quietly in her car seat, watching the scenery go by.

I needed to focus on something more positive, at least for her sake. “Thank you, God, for this beautiful day,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. Calling it beautiful was a stretch with the brown grass and dead trees. But at least it wasn’t raining.

“I see a pretty blue sky,” Jocelyn said. “And the yellow sun. And the chocolate trees!”

“Chocolate trees?”

“Yes,” Jocelyn said. She seemed surprised I didn’t know exactly what she meant. “When the trees don’t have their leaves on them, they look like chocolate.”

In spite of myself, I laughed a little at that. Chocolate? I thought. Well, she’s not wrong. They are a deep brown, like dark chocolate. More importantly, when I thought about them that way, the trees no longer looked so sad and hopeless.

I was still thinking about those trees when we got to Mandi’s, so I told her about it as soon as we walked in the door.

“I love that!” Mandi said, a glimmer of light in her eyes. Jocelyn bounced on Mandi’s bed, and Mandi gave her a weak smile. I listened as Mandi and Jocelyn made up a story about a princess who lived in a forest made of chocolate trees. Jocelyn’s laughter warmed my heart, but I could tell Mandi needed to rest. When Jocelyn left the room, Mandi continued peering out the window.

“Looking at the trees?” I guessed.

Mandi laughed. “I was,” she admitted. “I was thinking about how some people see something bare and ugly out there, but our Jocelyn sees chocolate trees. We should all be like that, shouldn’t we? We should learn to look for the chocolate.

“It would certainly make the world a lot sweeter,” I said.

A few months later, I drove Mandi home from her chemotherapy treatment. She’d fallen asleep in the passenger seat. Good, I thought. Sleep will help keep her strength up. About an hour from home, snow started to fall. Ugh. Just what I needed, I thought, gripping the steering wheel tighter. Snow would make the roads more slippery and might make it harder for Mandi to walk from the car to the house.

I sensed movement beside me. Mandi had woken up. She turned her head slightly to look out the window. “Awww,” she said softly. “Look. God put marshmallow cream on Jocelyn’s chocolate trees.”

Amazing. I hadn’t even tried to look for beauty in the snow while Mandi, exhausted and sick, saw marshmallow cream. Mandi had said we should all be like Jocelyn, but my sister was actually doing it. What for me was a funny story had become a life philosophy for Mandi.

Mandi passed away the following April. In heaven, she no longer has to look hard to find beauty around her. Here on Earth, I ask God to help me be more like her, to find joy in the dark times, and never miss a chocolate tree.

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