I was at work when I got the call from my mom…not so unexpectedly. I assumed every time she called, especially when I was at work, I would be given the final news.
“Cari passed away this afternoon.”
“Ok,” I casually responded, fully prepared for this undeniable outcome, “How are you guys doing?”
“Well…as good as one can expect I guess.”
And that was basically that. She was 36 years old, married, had 3 young children, and died from Triple Negative breast cancer, though to be totally honest I’m not sure if she died from the breast cancer or complications related to chemotherapy treatment. Today is the anniversary of her death…and I’m not sure what I’m about to say.
I just know I loved my sister.
She and I had the closest bond in the family, she only a few years older than me, so we shared experiences that come from such proximity. She enabled a few lunch time ditch episodes in high school, called on her friends to fend off some of my bullies, showed me life in the city of Boston one summer when I lived with her, and so on. She was also a runner, trudging through multiple marathons as an adult, even with kids.
And she was proud of me…as only an older sister can be.
She liked looking out for me, even when I rejected it. She celebrated my “growing up”, holding a grudge against me for not letting her post photos of my son on the internet. And bragged about my running, posting photos on her blog when I was leading the local Komen Race for a Cure 5k in her honor. And although the physical distance between us kept our communication sporadic, she lived in Minneapolis and I in Indianapolis, we still kept in touch and talked about what was going on in our lives. For better or worse. Unfortunately, towards the end more the worse.
Cancer was killing her and I didn’t know how to really process this. I distinctly remember being on the phone with her when her shingles flared up and she started howling in pain over the phone, caught frozen in helpless fear I didn’t know what to do until her husband got on the phone and quickly told me what was going on. I hung up and felt cancer in a more personal manner than I ever had before, absorbed by it’s sometimes vicious reality.
I visited her a couple times from the prompting of my parents as her body continued to break down quicker and quicker, closer to the end each time. The first time I saw her in such a weakened state she could barely walk across the room and her face had puffed up from all the steroids being pumped into her body. I tried to pretend like nothing was different.
“How are you feeling?”, trying to convey some rare sense of younger brother empathy.
“Ok, I guess”, she sheepishly replied, though her averted eyes told a different story.
The next time I came to visit she was significantly worse off than before, now barely lucid and only periodically able to respond to those in the room around her. Her days consisted of being taken from her bed to the couch and then back to bed at the end of the day. She was, mentally, off somewhere else I assume, lulled into a state of physical comfort from the drugs that suppressed the pain in her dying body. She was now unrecognizable to me. It was absolutely awful to watch.
I didn’t go to her casket at the wake. She was no longer my sister. She was whatever disease had killed her…and I didn’t want to see that.
And then I carried on with life after returning to Indianapolis. I ran with a piece of her marathon shirt pinned to my back in Chicago a few weeks later where I set my still standing PR. It was important for me to take her on “one last run”, but my celebration, as amazing as it felt to me, was periodically hollow when I realized I couldn’t call her and tell her about it. She couldn’t brag about it on her blog and she never got to share in my pride of the effort. I always wondered how she would have reacted to that performance.
Regardless, I just kept going on, saddened by her absence, but never forgetting the spirit she left behind, the emotional mark I can still feel when I think of our sibling connection.
I was also mad…that she died of cancer. Because in my naivety, I just assumed she had done something wrong, had been eating the wrong foods, living unhealthy in some way…because that’s what I thought caused cancer. I thought it was always related to either some sort of unavoidable, unknowable environmental factor or a lifestyle habit that most people know isn’t all that great, but aren’t compelled to change, like smoking, eating too much sugar, or buying mainly packaged foods.
“At least,” I told myself, “I WON’T get cancer. I mean…that would be RIDICULOUS if it happened. Just imagine. But…that’s not going to happen.”
I was sure of it. Sure of it more than anything else in life. I mean, I knew vegans got cancer and I thought that was just tragic, but some sort of weird anomaly. I thought, whatever they were doing, I was doing something better. I was eating whole foods. I was eating organic. I was physically active every single day. I was running 2:25 marathons. People like me DON’T get cancer…I was sure of it. And I gave it little more thought than that except to pat myself on the pack for a job well done and a boost of pride in the life I had created for myself.
And I’ll admit this to you. Knowing that I was doing things different than my sister, as far as my diet went, ran through my head periodically, as a matter of fact, very soon before my diagnosis. I thought to myself, no joke, “I’ve outlived my sister.” And as sad as it made me to think about that reality, there was still that sense of pride in knowing that I was doing something right, that got me past 36 years of living to 37 years of living…all the while my stomach was growing and filling with cancer. It wasn’t but a week later I was stopped dead in my tracks. Naive? Now THAT was an understatement.
It all happened so fast that I didn’t even have time to really process my thoughts, to internally berate myself for even thinking something so stupid, to figure out what went wrong. Before I knew it I was coming out from under the knife and clouded in a fog of morphine. It was not too long ago I remembered thinking about my stupid pride.
And now I REALLY wish my sister was here, to share this tragic bond, or if not to share it than to at least gain some perspective from her. Or joke about it. I would TOTALLY joke about it with her, and she would feign that she didn’t find it funny, but she really would. Because I’m her younger brother and to joke about these things and drive her nuts is my job. I don’t know how she would initially take the news, but our bond surely would have strengthened going through this shared experience, and it would have been nice to hear some of her own thoughts about it all, have someone to call on that REALLY gets it, that knows the intricacies of facing a potentially fatal outcome. But, well, she’s not here and that’s all there is to it. Cancer took her before we could share one more part of our lives together, but it wasn’t THAT final of a break as her own cancer experience left me with a valuable resource of memories to live with and prepare for in mine. I can at least draw a positive from that.
I do miss my sister, more now than ever, if not because I can’t call on her for advice and perspective, then because I can’t tell her about my latest running accomplishments in the face of cancer, only to let her feel that sense of older sister pride again. It would have been nice to lift her spirits one last time in this tragic sibling bond. I think she would have been proud for the way I’m handing this.
You can read my sister’s words at her blog – http://www.undomestic.blogspot.com – that is still up.