I was sitting in the corner of a restaurant in D.C. I had my back to the door, and faced by brother in the corner. We gazed out at the empty sidewalks as we ate, and talked about our lives.
My oldest brother- tall, dark, and handsome (he’s single ladies, I think), built like a tank, was talking to me in the deepest, openest conversation of both our adult lives. At one point, he recounted the few occasions that he felt at his lowest. He named and described a situation during college, and then said “the other was when…” and kinda shrugged in my direction.
It was the fight for my life. It was my darkest hour, but so often I forget that it was also his darkest hour.
My most frequent cancer memory is from that first night. Tuesday had been the doctor’s appointment and x-ray triggering everything, and Wednesday morning had been the PET/CT scans to confirm it. My heart had calmly told my mind and body that this was cancer, and I was prepared for it. Wednesday night my family was dressed and in the van to go to our mid-week Bible study when the pediatrician called.
My parents left all my siblings in the van, and pulled me into our library, and closed the doors. They put the doctor on speaker, and the door opened. My sister Rachel crept in. It opened again, and Jo entered. At least once a week, to this day, I remember sitting on the overstuffed blue couch, Rach on one side and Jo on the other. My dad leaned in from a chair across a coffee table, and my mom in a chair on the end. My dad held the phone in the middle of us, his voice strong and business like as he always is on the phone. My mom quietly straining to catch every word. My two siblings tightly pressed into me. Rachel was crying silently. Jo had his stone face-angry-I’m-too-manly-to-cry look. The doctor confirmed that I had cancer, and spoke about the appointment he had set up for me with an oncologist.
Even Jo started crying then.
I didn’t cry. I was sitting in a room with the four most important and closest people in my life, and I knew they were hurting like our family had never hurt before or probably since. I felt like I was their rock in that moment. I still feel them both clutching my arms and crying. I remember patting my sister’s hair and telling her I would be fine. Those three siblings are from a different lifetime.
That phone call was like a Corelle dinner plate hitting the ceramic tile floor in the kitchen. It’s durable and chip-resistant. Nothing hurts those plates. But when it hits the right medium, it shatters into a trillion pieces, sending shards of glass deep into the feet of anyone around it. That phone call sent shards of hurt deep into my family, never to be the same again. None of us knew the pain and suffering we would all go through. None of us could have known how much cancer would shape all our lives, as much as any of us wanted to deny it.
Sitting with my brother in that D.C. restaurant, I remembered this moment yet again. I don’t know if we’ll ever speak of my cancer during my lifetime. He knows I write here, but he doesn’t read it. My family often made dinner at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) of Cleveland, where my family was blessed to stay during my treatments. I love making dinner there, and often took my family. Once, he angrily yelled at how much he hated that place and all it stood for. As much as I know he appreciated it at the time, he doesn’t want anything to do with the reminders of that chapter in our lives. I’ve never made another dinner there while he is in town.
Rachel was always with me. She slept in the hospital countless nights and slept on the floor by me at home for months. She always had my puke bowl, made Jell-O with clear Ensure when I didn’t eat, and literally did anything I could have possibly even hinted at wanting. She sacrificed her life for those many months I was sick, and I don’t know what I can ever say or do for her that will make up for the love she showed me.
John was 5 when I was diagnosed. We were close, as he was the baby of the family. He saw me go to the doctor more often and knew something bad was happening. My mom shared how one night at bed he cried and asked her “Will Jen die?”. That broke my heart. I wanted my brother to remember me as the sister who made breakfast, and bread, and cookies. Not someone who could die. It’s changed him forever. He’s going to be 13 in a month now. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff, ever. He seems to have a deeper sense on the priorities in life, that I think many adults are missing. He loves to eat- probably channeling those days when my mother was more focused on her dying daughter than on how much chocolate milk her son was pouring over his fruit loops at RMH. He has the biggest heart and makes connections with anyone he meets.
I don’t know where the other siblings fall. They all diligently come to Relay for Life, with their pockets full of cash from their piggy banks. They spend their money in support of cancer stuff and walk the luminaria lap with me. They come to the special survivor dinner with me and take pictures with me. Anything I ask of them, they’ll do. But I don’t know what they think or how they feel, and I may never know.
One of my most special in-patient memories is with Dan and Jo. In our family, if one person hurls, there is a chain effect faster than nuclear fission. One kid may be actually sick, but all 7 will puke in a waterfall chain (sorry mom and dad). Jo and Dan had walked over from RMH one night, to spend the evening with me. I ordered a ton of food for them, and we brought in the video game stand and turned on the TV. I felt myself ready to loose it, and didn’t want them to ruin their dinners, so I shooed them out of the room. They left quickly, and I started puking into my ugly green bowl. And then I felt a wet washcloth on the back of my neck and on my head. They had come back and stood by my while I was puking. I remember their faces as I tried to get them to leave again. They were so obviously trying to hold their mouths shut, but they refused to leave me.
Frankly, I’m sobbing right now writing this and remembering that night. I don’t think I have ever felt my brothers’ love more deeply than that moment when they stoically stood by my side.
My siblings visited me as often as I could, despite the age/flu-season restrictions. The youngest three had to be confined to my room, so we’d all squish in and watch a movie for their two-hour allotment. When I got transferred, the nurses got me a bigger room, and then they had a small area where they would bring games and write on the windows with glass markers. Having my family near me was so crucial for my mental well-being, which affected my physical healing.
I know my siblings were hurting then and still carry a lot of hurt and questions. I’ve been told so many times to go to counseling, and they probably should too. They were there for me when I was angry, mean, demanding, short-tempered, and so much more. They didn’t resent me when my parents spent so much time and money on me and I turned our family life upside down. I do believe that siblings are the forgotten people in cancer battles.
My deepest thanks to the nurses on Rainbow 2, in Easter 2013. Gender and age themed Easter baskets had been donated to the oncology floor. I expected to get one and divvy it up with my siblings, but the generous nurses found a basket for each sibling appropriate for their age and gender and brought it into my room. I remember when my family came after church Easter morning. We never have done Easter baskets in my house, so their faces absolutely lit up that someone had cared enough to get each of them their own special basket. I don’t think that’s an Easter any of us have forgotten, even the siblings who won’t talk about that time. I love organizations like Benny’s Buddies, who celebrate, honor, and encourage the siblings. Siblings are an integral part of the cancer family.
For the cancer peeps, please remember that your siblings are struggling with your sickness as well and be gracious to them. We can’t know what they are going through watching us deal with cancer.
And to the cancer peeps siblings, a very inadequate thank you for sticking by us through thick and thin. You are our heroes.