The Year I Spent Christmas in a Hotel

Cancer stopped me from going home for the holidays, so my family brought home to me.

December 21, 2019
Photo by Garrett Fleming

Not Sorcerer's Stone. Definitely not Chamber of Secrets. I bet people won’t remember Half-Blood Prince … Yeah, they’ll definitely forget that one. How though?! Voldemort’s backstory!

It was December 22nd, 2016. My two sisters, brother, and I were sitting in the lobby of a Chicago hotel playing Zero, a board game that flips Family Feud on its head. Instead of trying to guess the most popular answers, you have to figure out the option that got the least love from those surveyed. In this round in particular, we were sipping holiday-themed cocktails from the hotel bar and debating which book in the Harry Potter series was the most forgettable. (Final answer: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Sorry, J.K.)

I can’t remember if we were right or not, or which of us won (although, it was probably one of the girls—Gordon and I always lost to them in our annual holiday game showdowns), because I was a bit distracted. I was always a bit distracted in those days; my mind teetering in limbo between forgetting and remembering that I was sick. Really sick.

Earlier in the year, I had found a lump in my neck while taking a shower. Great, here comes a cold, I thought to myself. After a couple of tests, procedures and reassurances from my doctor, I stepped back into the exam room a few days later, to get my diagnosis and pick up what I thought would just be a prescription. It was mid afternoon. I believe it was a Thursday. I was alone.

Over the next 10 months, I would spend 100 days in the hospital, get over 100 shots, have five spinal taps and receive eight week-long rounds of intensive chemotherapy to get rid of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Luckily, I had worked it out with my care team so that I had a break from treatment over the Christmas holiday that year. This didn’t mean I could travel, though—planes and large crowds would’ve unleashed havoc on my weakened immune system. I had been sick for about nine months at this point, and frankly, canceling big travel plans didn’t shock me anymore. My brother’s high school graduation? Missed it. Flying home for Thanksgiving? Get real. The trip to Miami I planned without my doctor’s permission? Sigh! Needless to say, my eternal optimism had been turned down to a low hum.

My family, however, was not going to let us all be apart for Christmas. So my parents and three siblings decided to bring the holiday from our home in Texas to me in Chicago. Luckily, we were able to get a great deal on a two-story hotel suite for the long weekend.

One thing you should know about my family is that blending in is not our forte, and this holiday was no different. So there we stood on the steps of the hotel with about a dozen suitcases, boxes of ornaments for the 12-foot-tall tree my parents had ordered for the room, homemade cookies ready for decorating and a full Christmas meal prepped and frozen in Tupperware.

Our suite lay behind an arched wooden door not unlike something salvaged from a castle. Beyond was a living room with double-height ceilings, two bedrooms and two baths. The room my sisters, brother and I shared held two bunk beds, each with its own little set of cream-colored curtains and a miniature shelf inside fit for a book, phone or cup of water. Every night as I drew my curtain closed, I remember feeling like I was on an old sleeper train. Well, I felt more like a hairless cat on an old sleeper train because at this point in what the hospital called my cancer “journey” (eye roll goes here) I had barely a stitch of hair on my body. (As if I wasn’t already cold here in Chicago. Thanks, Big C.)

Clockwise from top left: Me, my sister Meredith, sister Elizabeth and brother Gordon.

After getting our footing and doing some mandatory Instagram posting, we kicked off “Project Get this Hotel Room to Feel Like Christmas.” We unboxed, fluffed, and decorated the tree; organized the buffet with all of the treats that had been sent to us by friends and family; and hung our stockings over the grand fireplace.

On Christmas morning, my siblings and I sat flipping through the name tags on each red stocking until we found our own; my brother’s being the easiest to spot as it was the newest and the least worn. My mom had cross-stitched these tags for us when we were young, and it seemed every holiday started with me tying my tag onto my stocking and ended with me sticking it way down into the bottom of the foot before packing the stocking away in the attic. Having this piece of home here with us in Chicago meant more to me than I had ever anticipated.

Our 12-foot tree and stockings in the suite’s living area.

All went as planned on Christmas day except for one tiny thing: We had a bit of a food fail. Before our stay, the hotel had assured us we would have access to a fully-functional kitchen so we could warm up the complete meal my mom and sisters had prepped for us ahead of time. The staff left out one minor detail, though: the state of the appliances.

I’m pretty sure 65 degrees was all the microwave was capable of and there wasn’t a single nicely working oven. Stumped but not defeated, we scoured the internet looking for restaurants that were open. A burger joint down the block ended up being the only option, but we didn’t care. When the food arrived we crammed around the small coffee table, styrofoam a stand-in for china, and chatted just like we always do at Christmas supper.

We ended up spending about five days living in our Christmas suite. Sure, we checked in because of my cancer, but the trip ended up being one big “Screw you!” to lymphoma. We didn’t let being far from home stop our traditions or get us down. On the contrary, we rallied. Every time we laughed, ate a yogurt-covered pretzel, or retold a story (for maybe the twentieth time), my family helped my cancer shrink just the tiniest bit.

I had to check back into the hospital and begin a new round of chemotherapy right after Christmas that year, and my family came to visit me before flying out.

“Your blood sugar is really high. Did you have a lot of lollies this Christmas?” asked the British attending physician. I laughed. “Of course!” I replied. “And frankly I don’t regret a thing.”

Listen Now

On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.

Listen Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Louise Chiffonade Brescia
    Louise Chiffonade Brescia
  • Char D. Nay
    Char D. Nay
  • FoodieTina
  • Philip F.
    Philip F.
  • Regina McBride
    Regina McBride
Garrett Fleming

Written by: Garrett Fleming

Interiors Editor & Art Director


Louise C. January 1, 2020
Oh great. I thought I was done "holiday crying." I love your family and wish you only the best. <3
Garrett F. January 6, 2020
Thank you so much, Louise!
Char D. January 1, 2020
Thank you for sharing such a touching story. If love and laughter are good medicine, your family can take credit for helping you win your battle. Best of luck to you in your journey to wellness.
Garrett F. January 1, 2020
Absolutely! Thank you for the well wishes!
FoodieTina December 23, 2019
Thank you for this beautifully written telling of your story.
Garrett F. December 24, 2019
I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
Philip F. December 23, 2019
Garrett, I love how you always find the silver lining! Such an inspiration.
Garrett F. December 24, 2019
You taught me that, Pops! <3
Regina M. December 22, 2019
Wow! Great article reminding us what’s really important!
Garrett F. December 24, 2019
Thank you, Regina!
Bcalhoun24 December 22, 2019
Loved the article Garrett! I am so amazed of your attitude now and also when you faced your horrible cancer!
I am so proud of you and loved the pics!!
Garrett F. December 24, 2019
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Grace B. December 21, 2019
I always love reading your writing, Gar. Thank you for sharing this- I will always remember these pictures :)
Garrett F. December 24, 2019
You were the first to give me a platform to share my stories, and I’ve always felt so supported by you. It warms my heart to have you here for this next chapter!
Julie S. December 21, 2019
What a beautiful story. I'm so glad you had this time with your family and that you are feeling well again. There is nothing like illness to make us realize what is truly important. My heart is singing for you and your family.
Garrett F. December 24, 2019
Hi Julie,

You are absolutely right. It puts everything into perspective. Not only while you’re sick but for the rest of your life.
Jessica December 21, 2019
Loved reading this story. Holding my new baby, I hope that our family has once ounce of that togetherness when she’s grown.
Garrett F. December 24, 2019
Hi Jessica,

It takes work, as I’m sure you know, but it’s so so so worth it. Congratulations on your little one!