When I got up the guts to say to my sister, “I hate this for you,” she said, “I know you do.”
She didn’t say tell me about it, or I do too!, or anything that might have come out of my mouth. She had trained herself to think of others. So there she was dying of cancer and when I said “I hate this for you,” she responded with empathy for me.
The closest thing to a complaint that I heard from her in the three years of her struggle with cancer happened twice. I was with her a good bit, but I would have been with her more except that I live five hours from Charleston, S.C. Once when I said, “Are you OK?” she said, “I’m never OK.”
You see, she had head and neck cancer, which is five percent of all cancers, and her particular brand was adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), which was only one percent of the five. So it was very rare. The other time happened towards the end in the hospital when she said, “I just want it to stop.”
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But why am I thinking along these lines? She wouldn’t have wanted me to. She got up in the morning and played bridge on the computer, or Solitaire. Before her illness hacked away at her activities and then her life, she was the captain of two tennis teams, played competitive bridge, where she traveled around the country for tournaments, and had a job at the nearby plantation giving tours.
She loved her life. She talked frequently with her two children, one out of college and working and one still in college. One morning she was on the phone with her son in England who had just lost his backpack which held everything important. She calmly helped solve these complications. I was also there on the day her daughter quit her job.
She was an involved mother but also a mother who wanted her children to stand on their own two feet. In other words, she wasn’t a mother who needed to be needed. She wasn’t a particularly affectionate person. The hugging world – she was born in 1951 – came to her more slowly than others, but she did adopt the hug and I think with sincerity.
I’ll be honest here. We hadn’t been close for years and years. It wasn’t one of those Hallmark relationships. We were sisters. I naturally had never contemplated her not being there. Sadly, towards the end many nurses and hospital staff asked if she was my mother. I wish she had never heard that.
But sisters, despite the many differences of personality and politics, have a bond. And so that bond, unspoken, simply sprang to life. I saw in my sister such courage, such humility, and such thoughtfulness of others in those three short years. I found out that I never really knew my sister.
Did these qualities emerge because of the disease? The doctors referred to it as indolent, but it was anything but. I don’t have my sister to call this Mother’s Day, but I do have the example. She was a woman who thought of others. She was loving and courageous on her walk here on the Earth.
This Mother’s Day I will know that I am blessed to have known her. I will keep her alive by keeping open the door of kindness and thoughtfulness of others.
Isabel Reddy is a mother and a writer in Bahama. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.