“It’s not a pretty story.” She says, and takes a bite of food.
I smile. “Go ahead and just tell me.”
“Okay, well, I was twenty-two years old, newly married, when my mom told me that my sister Angela called. She was sick, running fevers, in Italy. So we told her to come home. We took her to the doctor, and he said that he suspected she had cancer. My sister was thirty-two. We took her to Scripps Institute in San Diego and we found out that my sister had lung cancer that had metastasized and was inoperable. She was thirty-two and there was nothing they could do to help her. So she ended up going home – they didn’t have chemo or whatever. The only thing we could think to do for her was Laetrile, it was like an apricot pit type thing, and the only thing you could do to get it was to smuggle it out of Mexico so my niece and I did that. I was always so scared because they’d check the cars. And she began taking that, but the doctor gave her six months because she was young and the cancer was aggressive.” She looks away for a while with her eyes unfocused.
“So we went back to the doctors and continued to run tests, but there was nothing we could do, so I ended up quitting my job to go help her. The Laetrile made her sick all the time, and she just started to deteriorate – couldn’t eat, constant vomiting, bedridden. I would make her protein shakes and clean her apartment and take care of her; then we decided that we were going to go to Palm Springs where my uncle had a house. During the day we could order meals from his restaurant and do puzzles and enjoy the sun. One day as a joke we went to this store and bought these wigs, my sister always had this dark hair, and she bought this platinum blonde wing and we went to a bar and these guys were buying us drinks because they thought we were so cute!
“Then my mother came to visit – which was a nightmare – just condemning how we handled it. She would sit with my sister every day and they worked through twenty years of bad feelings – you want to hear all this?”
“Whatever you want to say, I’ll hear.” I say with what I hope is a reassuring grin.
“I’m sorry this is so jumbled, there are all these things that keep popping into my head, like how we would play Scrabble, and I’d steal her clothes, and we’d talk about what it would be like when she got better – we never thought she’d actually die. I think it would’ve been better if she had just been hit by a car and I didn’t have to watch as she faded away right before my eyes…
“My sister didn’t want my mom there – too negative. Then we went back to my sister’s apartment; her kids were staying somewhere else at the time – she had two kids. So I slept in a chair and took care of her while she was in the bed and she slowly started to lose weight: she dissolved before my eyes until she was like a skeleton. Around the fifth month she forgot who I was; she was hallucinating. She thought I was Lisa, her daughter, and she cried a lot when she slept. But she never complained about the pain; it must have been excruciating, but she never once complained.
“During the day I would have her next-door neighbor come over and watch her while I went to the market and brought fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grain bread, natural everything, and I would make her these shakes because at that point she could only handle liquid food. She was on oxygen and the doctor was making house calls at this point, and I’d, uh, clean her bed, and give her sponge bathes and check her tubes, and had to turn the breathing higher every day. She was about 100 lbs at this point, she went down to 45lbs, lost her hair, lost her teeth. The only time I could escape her was when I went downstairs to do the laundry. I would sit on the washing machine and just cry and cry – she was so deformed, she looked like a monster because of her sickness.” She pauses at this point and begins to cry quietly. Her voice has begun to break with the tears clotting the back of her throat and I allow her the moments of silence to handle all the emotions. I wait for her to begin again when she can.
“Are you okay?” she asks, thinking of me, thinking of the other person as she always does. “I’m sorry, I just haven’t talked about this in so long. You would’ve liked my sister. You would’ve really liked her – she was a lot like you. She drove me crazy but she was so much like you. I miss her so much.”
“Tell me about her,” I say.
“Where was I?” She wipes a tear.
“The laundry room.”
“I used to cry so much, that I had to use the clean towels to wipe my face and then I’d have to wash them again. She didn’t want any unhappy people there so I’d have to put on a happy face all the time. She thought the crying was bad energy that fed the cancer. I left my husband and quit my job when we were newlyweds to take care of her, and the only place I could cry was the laundry room. It was like my prison.
“She started to look really old, being twenty-two as I was, she looked very old to me. I’m fifty-four now, so you can figure out how long ago that was. Her breathing got really short like in little – like in little catches, so I called my mom and my dad and told them to come visit her because it was getting really bad. I’ll never forget my mom coming in. She had her hair piled up on her head and make up on and a fancy shirt. She looked so pretty, and my dad looked very stern. I told her not to be negative, but the first time my mom went in to see her she started crying – it made me so mad. It was just days and days of watching her in the bed. Her breathing got worse and worse, and Greg was constantly calling and asking how she was doing and when I’d come home, and I just didn’t know. Between the medicines and the sleeping in the chair, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I was twenty two years old. There was this constant repeating everyday of going to the market and scrubbing the apartment and cleaning her, and then one night she said she didn’t want a bath. I was sitting there next to her, and she was on the highest level of oxygen, and her breathing was so bad, like tiny baby hiccups, like a fish out of water. She kept calling me Lisa, my niece’s name, and telling me she loved me.” She pauses to catch her breath.
“She just kept gasping for breath, and I looked at her and she had lost all her hair, and she looked like a skeleton, like someone from a concentration camp. She didn’t even look like herself, she was always so beautiful, she always looked so beautiful. And I was sitting there in the dark holding her hand…” she sobs and places her hands over her face.
“And I was holding her hand, and everything was quiet; there was the whoosh of the machine, but I didn’t hear her little hiccup breaths anymore. I knew she was gone. So I just sat there waiting for twenty minutes or so before I turned on the light and could see that she had died. I saw that she had a smile on her face. Just before she had told me she was very tired and ready, and I asked, ‘Ready for what?’, but she never answered me. I turned the oxygen off, and adjusted the covers, and closed her eyes, and then I called the police. I waited for an hour and a half for someone to show up. While I waited I cleaned the apartment, and brushed her hair, what little she had left, and put a little lipstick on her. I went in the bathroom and looked in the mirror, and I didn’t even recognize myself – I had lost so much weight. I called my husband, and told him I was coming home. He was so excited – he thought that someone was there to relieve me – but I corrected him. I didn’t cry when she died, I didn’t cry; I did all my crying in the laundry room.” I notice she’s twisting her wedding ring anxiously.
“The thing I noticed about all this was how pathetic people thought she was when she was sick. I couldn’t understand how people stayed so far away, stayed so distant, like she was contagious or something. Cancer is sad, as you die, you begin to smell like death. I’ll never forget that smell. It’s like a foul, decaying smell that consumes you. And all this is why you’re named Angela. I loved my sister so much, and she never got to meet you.” She sobs again. This is my mother, sitting on a couch in our living room, crying quietly as she tells me, again, what it was like for her to lose her sister.
“I’m so sorry.” She says, as she buries her face in her hands to wipe away her tears. “But you can see now why your name is so important to me – she died this deteriorating death and then years later there was this new beautiful baby girl and it was like she was reborn, like everything that was good in her here again. I knew the day she died I would name my daughter after her, and when you were born with those dark eyes and ark hair: you look so much like her. She never met you – but she knows you. She knows you.”
I stand up, and hug my mother and try to quiet her tears. It’s hard for me to remember that these 48 minutes were more than 5 months of my mother’s life, ones that former her character, and in many ways mine as well. When I was a girl, I never liked my name because I always felt as if it were never truly mine, as if it belonged to someone else as well. And that’s true – it really isn’t all together mine; but at this point I accept that, and even celebrate it, because if my name can help my mom forget the smell and decay and the tears that cancer caused, then I would gladly give it, today and every day. Because the point of this story isn’t that my aunt had cancer- it’s that my aunt faded away as my mother watched, and that something as small as a baby girl and a name on a birth certificate could give her back the best friend that cancer stole from her.
I have known many beautiful, extraordinary men and women who have struggled with cancer of the breast, lung, and bone. I saw as a close family friend, April, slowly succumbed to cancer over five years, but no sufferer could affect me more than the one who I think of every time I write my name on a piece of paper, the hole in my family tree, the one who I never met, but would give anything to see, if only for a moment.
“It’s not a pretty story.” She says, and takes a bite of food.