The night I learned my sister was sick (1356 Words)
|I remember exactly the kind of night it was the night I learned my sister was sick.
It wasn’t the night she got sick, though I think of it that way sometimes. The night she got sick would be much harder to pin down. Was it in the weeks before, when pain clawed the back of her heart and exhaustion overtook her life? Or did it start nearer Thanksgiving? When she woke up with knees so achey she could barely drag herself from bed? They said it wasn’t possible that it could have started that far back, that her body wouldn’t have survived without treatment that long. But clearly her body was telling her something, even then. And there are those who would argue symptoms of disease are with us our whole lives. That they exist in our behaviors. The way we interact with the world dictating what will be our undoing. And maybe there is something to that, but I don’t like how much it feels like blame. We find enough ways to blame ourselves.
It was snowing where I was that night. I was coming home across the bridge, and the fresh snow was reflecting off the clouds, allowing outlines of the mountains to be defined across the river. And it was warm—you could tell by how the snow, illuminated in front of the street lights, fell in wet chunks. As I drove, I was trying to convince myself the doctor’s appointment she’d had that afternoon had been so benign she’d forgotten that when we’d spoken earlier she said she’d call when it was over. I was vacillating between that and imagining they had told her such devastating news she couldn’t bring herself to call.
I was wondering how I would react. Would I yell and sob? Would I do nothing? I worried, that like so many things I have encountered in my life, it would make me numb. That I would lose my attachment to myself and simply stand there, not knowing what to say. And as I swung my truck around the curve into the merge lane, I tried to get invested in the argument I was having with my husband about buying a bike. But my heart just wasn’t in it.
When the phone rang later that evening I was buoyed by the sound of her voice. Especially when she asked “how are you?”. Certainly no mother with small children, when just given terrible news, would think to ask her sister “how are you?”. But even in those words I heard a strange and slurred aloofness, and any buoyancy went out of me. It was a heavily medicated slur. A result, I found out, of the ativan they’d given her so she wouldn’t be crushed under the reality of what was happening. “So…” she began, slowly drawing out the words, because how do you tell someone something to wretched? How do you even make yourself form the words, when they seem so impossible to believe? “It seems... I... have leukemia.”
The sentence slammed into me like a fist to my stomach, knocking me half-way to the ground. I stood in the kitchen, bent in half with the phone pressed to my ear, sobbing as I listened to her relay the few details she knew—that it was treatable; that they were taking her to Vancouver. That she was sorry for making me sad.
When the phone call ended, my husband come into the kitchen and held me against his chest while I explained what was happening between jagged, sobbing gasps for air. I remember wishing there was a different way to cry. Feeling like I had wasted so many tears on so much nonsense—sad movies, unwinnable fights, pleas for attention—and now, when I really knew what sadness was, I wanted to be able to express it better than this.
And I remember wondering how I would write this moment. As I stood there, I couldn’t help detaching myself, couldn’t help placing this moment into a future lens where I would write it down. I remember exactly how I stood, my right ear pressed against his chest, looking at the white, dimpled surface of the fridge door, and rehearsing what I would write when the time came to write it.
I did the same thing when I was a kid. I would narrate my life inside my head as it was unfolding. Sometimes pretending I was writing a book, sometimes recounting these melancholy childhood moments to an interviewer. Acting as though they had happened long ago, to someone much like me, but not quite me. Was it a way to paint a different version of my life than the one I was living? Or just a way to assure myself there was life beyond being a sad, lonely and scared kid in a small town? Is it a coping mechanism I created to soothe myself way back then that I reverted to when I found out I was dealing with the scariest thing I have encountered in adulthood?
And I have tried to write about this, but it’s never been good enough. Somehow, I’ve never managed to capture the depth of my fear and my sadness that night. And maybe it’s because I didn’t want to bring the focus back to myself too much. Maybe it seemed unfair that in writing about that night, I should focus on anything but her. But I see now there is no other way I could write it. Because it is her story, and I can be involved in that, but only to the extent that it affects me.
I remember watching a movie when I was young where someone was explaining about the realities of getting close to another person. How the distance had to be crossed by half each time as two objects get closer, but how, at some point, the space is too small to be halved, and so, that final distance could never be overcome. I don’t know if this is actually a theory, and as a kid I remember thinking it was nonsense. Even in the movie, the demonstration was being used as an excuse to get close enough to kiss the person, and I thought, “well doesn’t that prove she was wrong?” But I understand now—I can never truly know anyone, or be known by anyone. That there is an indivisible distance, no matter how small, that cannot be crossed.
And that tiny distance causes so much fear. I can’t know what it feels like to be told that you have leukemia. I can’t know what it’s like to be torn from your young children, to have your bones gouged and your veins stabbed and your marrow obliterated and your body broken down to a place from which it almost can’t recover. And that makes me helpless, because all I can do is stand to the side and think of all the things that happen, all the things that change, if my sister is no longer here.
I fell asleep quickly that night, exhausted from crying. But a few hours later I surfaced from sleep—slowly, gently. For a fraction of a second my brain let me forget what was happening, and it was just another dark night, the snow falling outside the bedroom window, my love asleep beside me. But as my mind brought me fully into the room, into the night, the fear poured down on me, crushed my chest like a lead weight was dropped there, and I struggled not to let it drown me. I thought of her, being flown to the city, alone and scared and sad. But even then, doctors were springing to action to do something to bring her back from the state she had succumbed to. There was action all around her. I was all alone in that dark room, terrified and helpless, wishing there was something I could do, wishing to be transported to a time when I was detached from all of this by time, ready to write it down. For some time I lay like that, willing myself to keep breathing in the dark.