There is something that I have to tell you now.
Something I’ve been trying to avoid.
But that isn’t going away.
My sister is dying of cancer.
I was told this by a mother with whom I am not otherwise in contact.
Which used to be her choice. And now is mine.
There are those who survive cancer. I even know some of them, personally.
But my sister, I suspect, is not one of these.
When I say she is dying, I am relatively certain that is the imminent reality.
But even knowing that it could be soon, I put off contacting her.
A few years ago, I was rushed to the emergency room. And when I was asked by the surgeon if my affairs were in order, my sister not even a passing thought.
I’d said my goodbyes to her half-a-lifetime ago.
So when I heard about her fate, I chose to believe that her life had taken a similar path.
And that I was not even a thought.
It sounds so heartless. I’m not even sure how to defend myself against that. It’s a long, winding story, that ends with my casting off the majority of my family because I, very personally, wanted to live.
We all have demons.
And mine come in the form of blood relatives.
There’s a memory I have of my sister from growing up.
She’s seven or eight to my three or four, and we’re standing at the top of the stairs in the old A-frame. We’re both wrapped in towels, fresh from a bath, and Dad is in the bathroom draining the tub.
We’re waiting for him to come out and get our pajamas for us because, without him, we’re afraid of our own bedroom.
I notice my sister freeing an arm from her towel, and I turn right in time to catch her wretched expression as she pushes me down the flight of stairs.
I remember coming to with a black eye, my sister’s worried face hovering over me. I remember wondering if she was worried because I was hurt, or because she thought I was going to tell.
I went with option A, and kept my mouth shut.
I hear the excuse in this. I do. A feeble attempt to explain why I would not contact a dying woman.
But the other side of that same memory is that after we were tucked into bed and left alone in our terror-filled room, my sister took my hand and whispered to me, “Wake me up if you wake up.”
And even after all this time, our childhood a thousand times dead, those words still define love for me.
In the end, it was my sister who contacted me.
“Just thought you should know, while you’re living your life, that your sister is dying.”
There was already an accusation in it, though our relationship is complex enough that I wasn’t initially sure what that accusation was.
I sent as much of a reply as I could muster, asking what I could do to help.
A response was not forthcoming.
And my nights of unsleep, which began when I first found out about her, intensified.
Nights in which I woke, not in my mind, but in hers. Somehow knowing the ruinous fear of her unreconciled mind. A belief in hell, perhaps. But more the unfairness of being alive at all.
Eventually, I heard from her again.
A second message, letting me know that she was very, very sick.
Letting me know that she had lost her hair, was unable to get out of bed.
And finally, letting me know that she wished I were the one dying instead of her.
It’s a complicated thing, to have a life, to be uncertain, unable to distinguish between safety and danger, comfort and misery.
I haven’t responded to my sister.
It occurs to me that together we can’t tell the difference between those things.
And perhaps as a result, she’s never been quite sure whether it’s love she feels for me, or hate.
Still, some nights in which I find myself eternally awake, I whisper it to her anyway, not even sure what it could mean anymore, but always in love with it regardless.
Our sister prayer.
“Wake me up if you wake up,” I whisper, and imagine taking her hand in mine.