In the last month of our road journey, my sister called with the news that she has breast cancer. My energetic, athletic, upbeat sister, who runs every day, is in maddeningly perfect shape, has never had a serious illness, and is enjoying an early retirement that includes volunteer work, travel, visits with kids, and a vacation log cabin with her best friend/husband of 38 years. It is a charmed life, in a way, and cancer has no right to it.
Beth is my only sister. We’ve always been close, but over our year on the road, we got even closer as we met up in five different states nine different times. When she got the news that she’d have to go through chemo and would lose her hair, Kate agreed with me. “You have to go visit her.”
I offered to fly out in time for head shaving, and I would shave my own as well. It felt like a big sister thing to do. “See? Not so bad.” We’d laugh at my expense before tackling her thinning mop. Then we’d face the mirror side by side – Don, too, with his naturally bald head –making faces till tears streamed down our cheeks and mirth gave way to gravity.
Beth declined my offer. As touched as she was by it, she didn’t think it fair to send me home to a new job wigless and bald, when her timid forays into public would involve careful disguises. She’d seen my brazen stubble 18 years before, when I’d made good on a similar offer to my friend Anita. Family reunion photos captured that unfortunate look, and I don’t think Beth wanted any part of resurrecting it.
But Don was there for Beth’s head shaving, and he stepped up superbly. He clipped her hair in steps, fashioning different silly cuts each time, and photographing each in the process. The lopsided look, the ragged, stand-up do, the Peter Pan, the GI Jane, and finally, the look-alike bald top. That one was my favorite. They posed together with their ukuleles, and I doubled over at her photo texts. Only when I insisted she send one of her completely shaved head could I see in her eyes the weight of what she was facing.
I flew out to Houston last week, in time for Beth’s third chemo treatment. The cancer has slowed her down some, but I was relieved to see that her spirit is unscathed. She is the same old Beth, looking cute as ever in her half-wig and baseball cap. She feels less confident with the wig she calls her Texas Big Hair. But she has dozens of colorful scarves she’s been trying to learn how knot with flair.
She decided it would be fun for the three of us to show up for her chemo appointment all decked out in scarves. Ever theatrical, Beth has a knack for getting others to play along. The night before her infusion, we three spent hours in front of their large bathroom mirror attempting techniques shown on YouTube videos and coming up with our own crazy styles. (Who knew scarf wrapping was so hard.) Ultimately, I went looking kind of like a hippie Muslim, and Don like a scruffy biker, complete with a Grateful Dead shirt that in retrospect might not have been the most sensitive choice of attire for a cancer center. But the nurses loved it, and everyone seemed to appreciate the lighthearted show of support.
It was a low-key week that went by quickly. My first day there, we came up with a menu and went shopping, and every day I cooked comforting favorites, with lots of leftovers. I had brought work with me, but on off hours, we floated in the pool, read, worked on a jigsaw puzzle, watched old movies and I Love Lucy episodes. For once, there was no agenda. No full-day outings and dinners out. Just a slow quiet, nestled between talk and laughter, which felt just right.
On my last day there, I wanted to recreate a couple of old photos of us as kids. Beth was at her post-chemo lowest, but she rallied for me. In one photo, we are snuggled in a wicker rocking chair. She is asleep in the curve of my arm, her head on my chest, and I have a glazed-eye, weary look. Studying this photo, I can feel her weight against me, rising and falling with deep-sleep breath, and remember what that felt like to be so close. We were a unit: The Girls. And she was my younger half. I felt so protective, even then.
Beth still had that old rocker in her family room, and we did our best to squeeze our two adult bodies into it, Don posing and coaching us. It was ridiculously uncomfortable and the results were questionable, but we laughed and laughed in the process, and for that alone it was worth the effort.
It’s my job to shield my little sister, but this bullet flew right by me. All I can do is offer support from the bench. But I know with gut-certainty that Beth is going to pull through this just fine, all the stronger for it. She’s unsinkable, and I have no doubt that she’ll be talking me into silly stunts for years to come.
To see Beth’s blog post about our week, go to:
It’s hard to believe it’s been a week. Still feels like you’re here, since we just ate your enchiladas. 🙂
How can I thank you enough for making that journey, Big Sis! It was not the best fun-memory of all our reunions, but it will be one of the most special-memories, when we look back.
Thank you so much for being there for me, and Don as well.
Jennifer, this is a moving story. I’m so glad you two have each other. I love the humor and camaraderie you’re bringing to this journey. I’m glad she has such wonderful cheerleaders in her life, but ultimately, as i know from experience, it is a journey that Beth has to walk alone. Sending love and good wishes to all of you.
Jennifer, I know how much you love your sister! And it was obvious in every word you wrote. Loved the pictures, all of them, but especially the two of you in the chair.
I was moved to tears by this Jennifer. Thank you.
I will be having the final chemo treatment for my ovarian cancer next Friday so I have some idea of what your sister is going through. Bald is beautiful, but who knew it is also cold! Sending you both positive thoughts that this will eventually be behind her and she will be able to add her name to the long list of cancer survivors like I plan to.
This filled my eyes with tears and my chest with the joy and terrible risk of being human beings.