*Cancer: A Big Sister’s Story

I don’t know the name of the flowers that mysteriously bloomed alongside the driveway of our childhood home at 1735 Asylum Avenue. But every spring you and I posed for pictures in front of that small, jungley flowerbed. We grew up together in that house. Back then it was unimaginable that someday we would be middle aged and that you would have breast cancer.

Until recently, I was always dying to know the future. Remember when we had a bit of trastienda with Mom? Trastienda, one of those words that intrigued me.

Trastiendathe back room of a store where secrets are exchanged, fortunes told or blackmail delivered.

Remember that weekend in Miami Mom’s relatives when whispered about her spinster daughters. I was twenty-nine, you were twenty-six. We went to a tarot card reader that had hastily set up shop in the back of a beauty salon. The only beauty in the place was the delicate, exquisite cobweb on one of the hair dryers. Consuelo the Fortune Teller didn’t look too pleased about my cards. She said I would write children’s books or teach. I’d also eventually marry a man who already had a child. “Cuando?” Mom screamed. “I had three children at her age.”

Consuelo told you to throw water out the window and scream “vaya, vaya,” a sure-fire way of sending away any love that lingered for the wrong man. Obsessive loving—it’s in our genes like eye color. Mom still pines away for Manuel, an old boyfriend who may or may not have actually existed. We were told that if you followed Consuelo’s instructions, you’d have a husband in no time. It turns out that Consuelo (did you know her name means consolation in Spanish?) mixed up our fortunes.

Even so, a few months ago I convinced you to go hear a spiritual medium with me in a synagogue on the North Shore. You had just had the biopsy and wanted to avoid the future. But I convinced you that I had questions for our dead father and that you’d want to hear his answers.

Surprise, surprise, it was Grandpa Willy who broke through to this world. We were in a large auditorium and there were a cluster of dead Williams hovering near us. The medium—this time young and runway stylish —wore a headset. “Operators are standing by” ran through my mind like a ticker tape. Is God standing by too?

The pretty medium explained that families whose dead have the same first name tend to sit in close proximity at these kinds of events. She heard one of the Williams whisper something about breast cancer. She turned abruptly away from us. “Cancel that. No breast cancer for you.” She was talking to another family with another dead William seated a couple of rows behind us.

I feel that I’ve learned a lesson at your expense. I don’t want to know anything about tea leaves and tarot cards and mediums anymore.

After all these years, you and I still don’t smile much. The first thing the men that we married noticed about us was our lovely, sad faces. We used to laugh, though, when mail came addressed to 1735 Asglum Avenue instead of 1735 Asylum Avenue.

Like the annual appearance of those floppy, pink-red flowers lining the driveway, somehow we also bloomed. When those odd flowers popped open, they looked like the O of your mouth when I made you cry. I never left a mark on you, and when you cried the cry of a hurt little girl, Dad snapped at you for crying crocodile tears again. In case you’re still wondering, crocodiles have lachrymal glands, but they only cry to clean their eyes. A crocodile feels no remorse. I hope it’s not too late to tell you that your tears were not the same as a crocodile’s.

If you were the crybaby then I was the liar. That moniker still follows me like tails on the kites we loved flying on the fields of Saint Joseph College.  Like Scheherazade, I lied to save my life. I taught you that invaluable skill.

I was Mom’s favorite—her Siamese daughter who shared her heart and mind and language, until I wanted my own memories to shape and impress my life.

You were Dad’s pride and joy—the pint-sized fan that screamed, “Roughing the kicker” at Yale football games. This was in sacred service to Dad’s venerated Elis, so that the team could gain an easy ten yards and a first down. No one at the Yale Bowl was more adorable than you. Dad, a solid man of principle and fairness, could only bring himself to give you a pro forma scolding for bad sportsmanship.

On Saturday nights, Dad showed you off to the guests in the living room.

La mas linda della familia.” You were always the prettier one.

I pretended to be asleep in my twin bed when he carried you downstairs. I was Leah to your Rachel—the older, dowdier sister that the Bible described as having “weak eyes.” My eyes were an ordinary brown. But Dad said that yours were as “black as Spanish olives.” You were part and parcel of Dad’s infatuation with all things Spanish. Yet most everyone thought we were twins. Mom dressed us in fancy matching outfits for those spring pictures, while she refused to change out of her housecoat.

Isn’t it weird that the mystery flowers started dying off when Dad began to forget how to get home from the supermarket? I thought those flowers would last forever. Sometimes I tear up when I remember the lawn guys hacking away at the last remnants of our odd little patch of garden.

Chemotherapy has balded you down to the last root of your thick dark hair. Remember how much we loved the song “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves?” There’s no one who can pull off a headscarf and hoop earrings better than you. The other day I was walking up the stairs in your house and I thought you were sitting in your guest room—your back was to me—and you were wearing the wig. I was surprised because you said the wig was hot and itchy. I was further startled when I called your name and your voice answered me from another direction.

In the 60s Mom’s wearing a wig was as subversive as burning a bra. The wig was her reprieve from constantly teasing and wrapping her long mane of hair that Dad insisted she never cut. I was so scared of Mom’s wig that I couldn’t be alone with it in her bedroom. Turns out, your wig was also displayed on a macabre sculpture—a head with a nose and mouth and eyes as blank as white space.

Mom called her piece of lifeless hair a fall and anchored it to her head with stretchy, colorful headbands. But I liked it best when her hair was pulled up as if she was ready to wear a mantilla. She never had the kind of patience for my knotted hair. Bolones is what she called my clots of hair that she pulled at with a plastic comb.

After your buzz cut you were startled that Dad looked back at you in the mirror. His face was transposed on yours, complete with the same weary and watery eyes. You’re bulldogs the two of you. Dad’s Yale bulldogs that you rooted for too.

When you found the lump lotioning up in the shower, you had no idea this would be the scene of another trastienda. Your fate was sealed when all you wanted was to smell good to meet your favorite and only niece’s boyfriend—my daughter’s first love. I panicked when my baby’s courtship took off. “It’s not the same,” you said. “She has a loving home. If she falls apart she knows you’ll be there to put her back together.” You also said that I would have been as happy as my girl l if I’d had a loving mother. I’d settle for a mother—warts and all—who simply had had good intentions.

Until you had breast cancer, I thought margins only existed on sheets of paper. But margins are also hurdles you had to jump over. As in, your margins needed to be further cleared. After the lumpectomy you had a second surgery to widen what I imagined this time as a protective border of white space. If your numbers were any higher you would have needed a mastectomy.

At your insistence, soon after your diagnosis, I went to an artist’s colony for three weeks. I was 1500 miles away and floating through what I can only describe as a valley shadowed by despair. No treatments were scheduled for you until I returned. The truth is that no course of treatment was decided for a couple of months. The mills of the cancer gods grind slowly. That’s a tagline for a fortune cookie.

In the middle of my writing residency you called to tell me that your lymph nodes were clean. I was struck by how filthy cancer is—a realization as loud as the thunder you were once so frightened of. I almost didn’t hear you say that you also bought the optional chemo insurance policy. “I want this thing destroyed,” you said. “Torpedoed.”

Our readiness for the battle thrills me. And scares me. Scares me as much as the short haircut I vowed to get. I was in sixth grade the last time I had short hair. My hairdresser initially refused to cut my hair as short as I wanted her to. “We’ll do it in two stages,” she said.

“One stage. Like my sister’s cancer.” But she was insistent that it was too much change at once. After the haircut my hair was shoulder length.

The first time I saw you bald I went back to the salon without an appointment and said, “Round two.” People gathered around me and said I was so brave. Hair grows back for goodness sake. But I can’t stop stroking my phantom ponytail.

You cried when you saw me with short hair. You said you were so sorry you changed our family history for the worse. Our health is collective, like our girlhood.

Since your diagnosis we’ve been bargaining with everyone from doctors to employers to a God who acts enthroned and entitled. Here’s the only deal I want to strike: next spring we have a lush, veritable garden of our new lustrous hair.

And then, I imagine, we’ll pose for another picture.

*Please note this is an older piece. Thank God, my sister has come out the other end and among many things has a beautiful head of hair.

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