My O.C.: Crystal Clarity in Renovation

Home upgrades, cancer treatments, and a new perspective mix in surprising ways.
Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

June 2011 remains clear in my memory. I’d had a hectic school year teaching and was facing scans to monitor my cancer’s progression, so a summer project seemed like the perfect distraction. I had painted my bedroom a soft gray and updated the pine bedroom set we’d had for 10 years with cream-colored paint and updated gold hardware. The gold and gray pairing was magical. But I needed more: a statement piece. Something that had a story. Perusing Pinterest, I saw a photo of a pair of chandeliers over a bed.

After several days of surfing Craigs-list, I found a treasure in Huntington Beach—matching midcentury waterfall chandeliers. Until this point, I’d never owned a chandelier. It brought back memories of the one that gleamed over our formal dining table when I was a kid.

At $70 apiece, they were within budget. The address on the listing led me to a suburban “Leave It to Beaver”-style home, where I was greeted warmly by a middle-aged woman. A patterned scarf held back most of her hair, but a few blonde curls had wiggled free and lay glued to her dampened brow. She apologized for the stifling heat and invited me into a living room bursting with stacks of boxes. Her parents had passed away, she told me, and she was cleaning out her childhood home. She escorted me down the matted gold shag of the hallway to her parents’ bedroom, where the chandeliers hung in a naked room. The bed had left a dusty imprint on the carpet, and dingy curtains blocked all signs of the sun.

When she flipped the switch to show me the chandeliers were in working order, their light was strangled by a thick, yellow dust that coated every crystal.

“My dad was a smoker,” she said. “They’ll need to be cleaned up.”

“No worries,” I replied. My father was a smoker, too, and the grime did not dissuade me. I pulled the wad of cash from my pocket and handed it over. The woman said the fixtures had always been in her parents’ bedroom, as far as she could remember. They were family heirlooms.

“I’ll give them a second life,” I assured her. My mind danced with ideas as I envisioned these treasures in my redecorated bedroom.

A worker, helping her with repairs, grabbed a ladder and loosened screws. The chandeliers clanged in complaint as they were removed from the only home they had ever known and placed into a cardboard box. I jammed the rattling pair into my hatchback and headed back to Yorba Linda.

 

As I drove along the 22 Freeway, the hot summer sun reactivated the stench of nicotine and my own childhood memories. An image of my father’s side profile, his elbow resting out the open window of our speeding car, bobbed to the surface of my mind. With his left hand, he sucked in long drags of his Marlboro while his right hand guided the steering wheel. When I became old enough to drive, I imitated his refined thumb flick to release my own spent ashes into the wind.

Back home, I filled the sink with hot, sudsy water. I disassembled the fragile fixtures with surgical precision. The plump, almond-shaped crystals came off like ornaments from a tree, while the longer strands of jewels required finesse to avoid crimping the delicate wire holding them together. Piece by piece, they were dipped into a luxurious bath, leaving a yellow, powdery residue amid the bubbles. As I gently agitated the water to release the dirt and grime, their clinks and clatters reminded me of glasses toasting on New Year’s Eve.

After their gentle scrubbing, I ran the jewels under clear, warm tap water, baptizing them for their new home. The larger crystals felt smooth and heavy, and they breathed in light as I buffed them shiny. When I held each up, little prisms gleamed and preened, invigorated once again.

The stripped metal frames of the chandeliers were cloaked in a fresh coat of gold then reunited with their adornments. Standing on a step stool, I placed each piece on its awaiting prong. Crystals spouted from the top and dripped into glistening strands like a grand water fountain.

Golden chains dangled from the bottom of each fixture, swaying in anticipation. A little tug and a click brought them back to life as electricity charged up the cords and into the filaments. Suddenly, my bedroom was bathed in a kaleidoscope of color that highlighted the gold undertones of the gray paint. Two shadow doilies spread across the ceiling and draped down the walls, creating art that shimmered and pulsed.

 

Over the years, those crystal sentries offered a healing glow after my multiple cancer treatments. When I was diagnosed in 2003, my rare, neuroendocrine cancer had already metastasized. My life became a steady stream of surgeries, chemo, and radiation therapy—all of which left me feeling zapped and withered. Each time, recuperation stretched from days to weeks.

After a difficult liver surgery in 2015, I remained in bed one morning staring at my chandeliers. The once clear path of my future was now refracted and distorted. Dreams of graduations and grandkids were replaced with fears of relapse. Suddenly, a sliver of sunlight pierced through my window and permeated the prisms at just the right angle to sprinkle the room with tiny rainbows. Through a blur of tears, I marveled at the colorful orbs that danced across my ceiling. Maybe my story was not yet written. What if there were as many endings as facets in a crystal? This tiny shift in perspective sparked a glimmer of hope.

In happier times, the crystals reflected the blinking TV screen as my husband and I spooned during our nightly episodes of “Seinfeld.” They illuminated novels and scribbled words on pads of paper I kept stacked nearby.

The magical combination of gray, gold, and crystal has withstood the test of time, yet other elements of my spa-like retreat now show their age and look less than perfect. The corner of the painted dresser bears the marks of a puppy’s teeth, and the once-white chair arms have grayed around the hand rests. The carpet, matted by three dogs in various states of stretch and recline, has seen better days. I, too, have aged. But gray hair and the wrinkles that have formed around my eyes have become gifts to cherish.

Scans are scheduled every six months to monitor the progression of my cancer. Usually along the same timeline, the chandeliers need cleaning. I pull out my step stool and a soft cloth dipped in warm water and start at the top. One at a time, I grip each crystal to feel its weight and remove the accumulation of dust. I whisper prayers of gratitude for my continued health. And when I’m finished, I gently pull the dangling chains to bathe in the restorative rays.

Clarity achieved. 

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