When I was very young, my big sister would tell me all about her dates when she returned to our shared bedroom late at night. I was a captive audience, far more interested that a 6-year-old ought to be. I developed strong opinions regarding the worthiness of each boy.
Then, when I turned 7, she dropped a bomb. She'd be leaving me. She was pregnant and had to get married- a teen bride. At least the father of her baby was my favorite of her suitors.
I disliked the lonely bedroom after she left, and had a hard time getting to sleep. She lived in a nearby town and still showed up for emergencies, like when I was home alone at age 9 and sliced my thumb open while whittling a horse.
She showed up to send me off on my first date, too, which did turn out to be an emergency. My mother was trying to force me to conform to her standards of what a marketable young girl should look like in order to snare a boy, and when my date rang the doorbell, I was in tears, hysterical. In a move highly uncharacteristic for my family, my sister actually put her arm around me and led me down the stairs to answer the door, telling me everything would be all right.
Still, my sister and I were not close. She was much older, and her life diverged from mine early on, as her marriage, followed by her divorce, followed by a succession of failed dysfunctional relationships, kept her occupied.
I have always worried about my sister. She was smart, beautiful and endearing, and could have done anything she wanted to. But she whithered away, hiding from life itself, saving her brilliant personality for the ne'er-d-wells in the bars she frequented. She cut herself off from my parents, resenting them for not raising her well.
And when cancer took our mother, the family deteriorated completely, having lost its only stabilizing force. My sister and I did not get along after my mother died, and talked long distance only sporadically.
It's been 7 years since I've seen my sister, when I was in NYC and she took a train down from her apartment in Boston to meet me. We walked through Central Park with my son and her daughter- my niece, who was born when I was 7.
She is the only person who has consistently remembered my son at Christmas and birthdays, even though she never had much money. She always sent stunning handmade cards to go with her gifts. Once recently she admitted to me over the phone that she had thought of moving to my city to be my son's nanny when he was born. I never knew.
Tonight I received an email from my niece. She dropped a bomb. My sister has a cancerous tumor on her tongue. It's advanced enough that the oncologists ordered a CT scan and then will decide among the options of surgery, chemo and radiation. The fact that it's not a small enough tumor to just quickly remove is daunting, along with the fact that chemo and radiation are options instead of just surgery. The CT scan means that there is concern that the cancer has spread to the neck.
I'm still trying to take it in.