Several years ago, my sister was diagnosed with cancer—Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
If ever there was a time to vehemently deny the title of this blog and the notion that Life Is Funny (even when it’s not), it was at this moment. Life wasn’t funny and I didn’t think it ever would be again. I was devastated by her diagnosis.
It was my closest dealing with the c-monster and I was terrified of the unknown and heartbroken that it was her—my very own sister—who was stricken with the unpredictable and vengeful disease.
I wasn’t even living in the same state as her when the cancer was detected, so my first step was to come home for a few weeks while she endured a battery of tests to better categorize her diagnosis and confirm its stage of progression.
My mom also came down to stay with us, and during one of the first nights the three of us spent together, my mom and I prepared my sister a nice, huge dose of delicious barium. She had to drink an obscene amount of it for a scan she was undergoing the next day.
It looked like a jug of milk—and by jug of milk, I mean jug of wet chalk. We were a bit apprehensive about presenting it to her because we knew she’d be put off by the smell and by the fact that it probably tasted like emulsified drywall.
We found her cozied up in bed, watching Frasier, when we entered her room bearing gifts. She sat up and situated her pillows just right and pulled her long, blonde hair in a ponytail before reaching for the milky delight.
We stared, unsure, as she stuck the fat straw down in the bottle and smirked through a deep breath. She then went into some kind of freak mode and drained the barium like it was a keg of her favorite college beer. She didn’t stop ONCE—even held up her finger, as if to say, “Hold up. Lemme get this last drop.”
She handed the empty container back to my mom and opened her mouth for a well-deserved (albeit disgusting, man-like) burp and then flung herself onto her side, laughing heartily at our shocked and delighted reactions.
We all laughed … and laughed.
The next day, she underwent an extensive scan that was virtually painless, aside from the fact that she had to lay still for an unacceptable amount of time, ignoring intense itches and numb or tingling extremities. One wrong move and she’d have to repeat the entire process—and since the barium wasn’t actually Keystone Light—she soldiered on and plowed through.
Later, she was scheduled for a bone marrow extraction. For those of you familiar with this test, I’m sorry. For those of you unfamiliar with it, I hope you stay that way. For reasons unknown, they didn’t put her out or under for it, which I found out later, they often do.
My mom and I were sitting in the room as nurses came in with prepping trays. The loose plan was for my mom to stand by the bed with her, while I sat in the chair at her feet. But when they uncovered the tray and my mom saw the instruments, she motioned for me to take her place, as she sought refuge just outside the windowed door.
I then stood next to my sister’s head and held her hand, while proceeding to talk non-freaking-stop as they extracted bone marrow from deep in her hip bone—WHILE SHE WAS AWAKE.
Side Note: There is really no way to describe what it’s like to watch this procedure at all, let alone when it’s on someone you love dearly.
She squeezed my hand hard enough to break my precious baby bones, while I said, “Your butt looks really good at this angle. I think you’d be real happy with both its contour and finish.” She nodded her head like, “Go on … tell me more.”
I said, “I know you wanted Moma in here with you, but you need to know something—she’s a fainter. She’d be face down, scrounging for smelling salts, unable to tell you how good your ass looks while they stick you with the same syringe I’d use to inject garlic butter into a deep-fried turkey. I’m telling you, even if she somehow escaped a first-round blackout, she’d see what Dr. Awasthi is using now and be all, ‘Say Doc, why do you have a meat thermometer on that tray? Oh what pretty stars I see!’ … TIMBERRRRR!”
I don’t know how, but she laughed … and I laughed.
And then I saw my mom looking horrified through the vertical window like, “Why are you laughing?!?!!!” … and we laughed harder.
And then I just wanted to climb on the table and scoop my sister into my arms, because I’d never witnessed such resolute courage in all my life.
Days passed and a prognosis was given and treatments were planned—six months of intravenous chemo, several days a week, for a few hours at a time.
One of the nights she was feeling especially yucky, I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean really, how do you make someone who’s nauseous and weak feel better?
Oh, I know. You—a bit of a tomboy—go into her closet and put on the most hookerish, girliest clothes and highest heels you can find and you crank up “So Fresh and So Clean” by Outkast and execute a runway show for the ages. Multiple outfits, struts, turns, hair flips and a general disregard for self-respect.
Nausea will never beat indignity in hand-to-hand battle.
I went to many, many chemo sessions with her and we fell into somewhat of a routine. We’d get to the oncology clinic and wait on them to call her back. We’d claim the best station we could find and set up shop. She’d get settled in, while the nurses came over to impale her with IVs and situate the chemo IV tree next to her reclining chair.
As soon as her drip was underway, I’d run over to Sonic and get us large drinks and cheese tater tots.
It became a bit of a running joke that I took everything way harder than she did. (Have I mentioned that she’s a strong free spirit and I’m … you know … NOT?)
Every time we walked through the clinic’s doors, I’d get nauseous and uneasy. Instantly. Every single time.
Side Note: My capacity for sympathy pain is unrivaled. I even gained five pounds during her pregnancy and feel certain my periodic hip pain is residual sympathy from her bone marrow aspirations.
I’d often need soothing after particularly traumatic IV mishaps. It was not uncommon for them to mis-stick her several times before getting a good vein, then looking over at me and asking if I was alright. My sister would squeeze my forearm and search my eyes, “You good? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Even on a good sticking day, I’d just hold my breath until they found purchase, then I’d put my hand up and let everyone know I was OK. This cracked her up.
We made the trip so many times—for check-ups, chemo, blood work, and scans. It was a good 30-40 minute drive and no matter what, I simply could not get the directions right. Normally, she’d drive, so I was fine—we’d just blast Lady Marmalade or Destiny Child’s Survivor and sing like lunatics. But the times I did drive, I’d just cringe when we got to the confusing exchanges, feeling uncertain about my internal compass. She was forever gracious in sensing my hesitation and pointing me in the right direction.
Every single trip, we passed the same huge amusement park with the worst-looking death appliance you’ve ever seen (some people call them rollercoasters). I’d aggressively turn my head away from it until we passed. My stomach was already fragile and compromised from being so close to the oncology center—I couldn’t very well look at a
mobile execution chair horrendous rollercoaster, too.
I’d keep my head turned away and wait on her to tell me it was behind us, then relax back into my position before coming nearly FACE TO FACE with it. She’d LIED to me again. You’d think that trickery would lose its luster, but no, she’d laugh every time. Cancer patients can be cruel.
They can also be extremely manipulative.
I could never say no to anything without a head-tilt and, “But I’ve got cancer” reply.
“Sis, no, you can’t eat cold ravioli out of the can.”
“But I’ve got cancer coursing through my body.”
“No way. We’re not sneaking into a second movie. It’s called theft—NO.”
“But it’s what my cancer wants and I might be on borrowed time.”
One day we were driving back towards home after a scan, where they’d injected her with a ridiculous amount of contrast material. We were riding along on a pleasant day, just listening to music, when she immediately gripped the steering wheel at 10 and 2, and sat straight up.
Her: I’m gonna shit my pants.
Me: No you’re not!
Her: I’m prrrrrrretty sure I’m gonna shit my pants.
Me: Shut up! You are not!
Her: YEP, reeeeeally gonna shit my pants.
Me: You are NOT going to SHIT YOUR PANTS.
(then she paused, got really still, as if deep in thought, and then held up her index finger to confirm)
Her: Yep, definitely going to shit my pants.
You’ll be pleased to know she did not, in fact, “shit her pants.” But once she determined the threat had vanished (and I want to iterate that we dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s), we flip-laughed and heave-laughed and pushed-each-other-laughed until we were absolutely spent.
The way she’d announced—so straightforward and business-like—her realization of imminent danger is something that still makes me laugh out loud to this day.
She fought cancer like a champ and kicked it to the curb for nearly six years. When it reared its despicable head again, we cried and cried. We even cried all the way through her second bone marrow extraction, not even pretending to be tough. And when she received her second “six months of chemo” game plan, we left the appointment and parted ways after a long and extremely sad hug.
Then I did what any sister would do. I, who can’t even tolerate Tylenol PM and have never successfully inhaled helium from a balloon, sent her a text:
And we laughed.
We also prayed.
And she kicked its sorry ass again.
So yeah … in life, there will be times of hardship, times of endless tears and times of sincere doubt and dreadful worry—but I still believe that with the right outlook, with a faith that dares to be shaken and with a bit of twisted humor—Life is Funny (even when it’s not).