Not deferential enough: A tale of two sisters

Posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: A tale of two sisters

by Gina Hamilton

My youngest sister is avoiding me. 

Not because we've quarreled, or anything like that. I'll refer to her by her initial, not only to protect her privacy, but also because that's how we refer to one another ... she calls me G, I call her D. So my sister D is avoiding me because she thinks I'll make her talk about something she doesn't want to talk about, which is the very real probability that she has breast cancer.

And she's right, I probably would.

My sister is seven years younger than I am. She was born two years after I lost my other sister, who died in infancy, and, although I didn't know it at the time, almost lost my mother permanently, too. When my mother died, prematurely, at age 47, we found notes she had written to us when she contemplated suicide after my baby sister A died of cot death, which we call Sudden Infant Death Syndrome nowadays. Note to self: Burn everything when you know you're going to die. You don't want to leave stuff like that for your kids to find, trust me.

A had been ill throughout most of her short life, and had just come home from the hospital after being confined for pneumonia for what seemed like a long time (but probably wasn't ... I was only 5 years old at the time). A had been my own personal baby doll, and a light went out in me when I finally realized I'd lost her forever.  I was the one who found her, the one who informed my parents, the one who cared for my 3-year-old brother while the paramedics tried to force oxygen into my baby's lungs. I sat on the floor and hugged the dog in the kitchen the whole time they were gone to the hospital. And when my parents finally broke the news to me, I was heartbroken. I didn't understand it until much later, but I understood enough to know that something incredibly permanent and devastating had happened. I had never experienced death before ... not a pet, not a grandparent, not even a houseplant. My mother retreated into a lonely world of pain that even her surviving children couldn't touch; although we had help in the person of Elena, who fixed our lunches and made sure we were home at certain times, it certainly wasn't the same as having our mother around and present.

My mother became convinced that D was the reincarnation of A (it was the '60s, after all, and people believed many different kinds off things back then). That brought her back to life. But D was a very different child, even as a baby. A was a sweet baby doll; D was an imp. I had to save her life more than once, and go looking for her when she wandered off somewhere in the neighborhood. 

What D also carried with her was the fact that my mother had taken a single dose of DES when she was pregnant, and it looked like she might lose the baby. That fact has come back to haunt her. Twice.

For much of her young life, I was at school. Unlike my brother and I, who had basically free rein, my sister was wrapped in cotton wool most of the time (my mother couldn't have handled losing another child), so when she escaped to go trick-or-treating (in April) or decided to investigate a neighbor's house (when they weren't home), I could sort of understand it.

My dad adored D. I remember him teaching her how to skip when she was 4 ... imagine a tall, big guy showing a little, tiny elf of a girl how to skip on a public sidewalk. He built her a dollhouse and played Barbies with her. They were close, and when my mother died when D was only 17, they grew even closer. 

And then he remarried, and things changed. I was married too, by then, with a 2-year-old son. I tried to encourage D to come to live with us, but she wanted to finish her degree in Illinois. So D went away to college and became a teacher, and today she is married with two children. 

The DES my mother had taken to save D's life before it had even begun had already robbed D of her cervix; now it looks like it might have visited breast cancer on her. 

I know she is dealing with this as she must. D has to consider this an "inconvenience," not a life-altering event. I've offered to be there. She's said that maybe, some months in the future, she might need my company, but not now. 

She is still processing. She's still the mother of a youngish daughter, although my nephew is in college now. She has to be thinking about her age ... 44, three years younger than my mother was when she died. 

But for me, this is very hard. I know breast-cancer treatment has come a long way in the last 10 years or so; I am glad the disease was caught when it was and that my sister has a better shot than she would have even just a few short years ago. I'm afraid of losing a second sister, and I have to wrap my mind around the fact that this is not, cannot be, about me and my fears. I have to support D where she is, wherever that is. I'll be there when she wants me, I'll stay silent when she needs me to do that. 

But oh, this is hard.

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