Before her diagnosis, my big sister, Emma, had to be the most popular girl in school. She was the girl who could do it all. She was a four-year varsity athlete in softball, Captain of the Cheer team, National Honor Society member, tennis athlete, homecoming princess and an active member of her ASB office. She had lots of friends, the football player boyfriend and almost perfect grades.
I respected how much of an extrovert she was, but that was not me. I was content with my quaint group of friends, plenty of hours studying and letting the more boisterous kids answer all the questions in class. However, it was a façade. A lie. I was secretly Batman, living 19 hours of my days as Bruce.
Okay, that’s a little dramatic. But, I left my quiet self at school each day to go to theatre where I could explode into the real me. I was a closeted theatre kid. My guilty pleasure. Everybody has their niche. But remember, I’m a “shy boy”. “Shy boys” can’t be known as a theatre kids; you’d live the rest of your high school career with everyone thinking you have no fear of public speaking and you would always be asked to go first on presenting school projects. Pass. I just didn’t fit into what society thinks a theatre kid to be.
Emma was always my number one fan. She almost never missed a show to support me. It was only time before I convinced “the girl who could do it all” to come audition with me for a musical her senior, my sophomore year. The show was “Peter Pan”. Emma had never done anything like this before. She could sing and took a couple years of choir, but Emma had yet to take the voyage to center stage.
I should have been less surprised when out of the seventy people who auditioned, Emma got the leading lady of “Peter Pan”, Wendy Darling. I too received a phone call from our creative team saying I would co-star with my sister by playing her on stage brother, John Darling. My family knew this show would be like none we have experienced before.
One day close to opening, Emma and I came home from an all-day Saturday rehearsal to my very somber and red-eyed parents. They sat us both down and told my sister and I the tragic news that Emma had been diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer. The news was devastating. I didn’t know what to think. I knew very little about cancer except that this was bad. Very, very bad. I was terrified for Emma. For my best friend.
My whole family went to Emma’s first doctor’s appointment, where her team of doctors confirmed that her life would, in fact, be put on hold when chemotherapy began. All her focus would need to be on treatment. They explained Emma would begin to feel worse than we could imagine nearly immediately. She’d be too ill for sports, too ill to create final senior year memories and the most devastating one for the both of us; too ill for theatre.
It was heart breaking when Emma and I had to go over to our director’s house to break the news. Well, I thought we were breaking the news, the news that Emma would not be able to continue to perform in the upcoming shows… but that is not what Emma said. My sister was insistent, “Cast an understudy, just in case. But I AM playing Wendy”. I couldn’t believe it! Wasn’t she as scared as I was for her? But her mind was made up.
The first weekend of shows went beautifully. But that next Monday, her chemotherapy began. School days began to feel longer, the skies felt darker. My nights became less of going out with friends and more about staying home with my sister as she lay quietly. She didn’t want to leave the couch. It hurt. I asked, “What hurt?” She simply answered, “My bones.” My heart broke for her. I wasn’t used to seeing such a strong person in my life so vulnerable, weak, and helpless.
Emma’s face began to pale over time. Her eyes became sunken and dark. We carried through the weekdays waiting for the next weekend of shows to come. I was doubtful. How could this poor girl possibly perform? Friday came again at last. I came home from school to find an empty nest of blankets and pillows on our couch. I found Emma at her vanity. Her face was made up in full stage makeup – a mask of a healthy face. She sat in front of her mirror and curled her blonde hair, iron in hand, gripped by trembling fingers. It was a miracle, an absolute miracle. Throughout the performance the audience never even knew she was sick. On stage Emma smiled, sang, danced and held herself together. Offstage was where she’d recover: her breathing was heavy and labored after every scene from exhaustion. She powered through like a pro for three more shows that weekend.
The following week went downhill quickly. Emma’s hair began to fall out. Her nausea was constant. She stopped eating; it was too painful for her. Red and pink welts covered the back of the throat and the roof of her mouth. Eating wasn’t worth the pain of her entire digestive system. Nothing tasted good to her, her tongue became blanketed with a layer of dark gray the doctors called, “chemo tongue”. Friday came once more. I came home from school to find my sister on the couch in her pajamas. This time with a fever. Honestly, she looked dead. A shadow of the sister I’ve always known laying on our couch. It was surreal for me. I’ve always known Emma to be the strongest and most determined person I’ve ever known. It scared me to realize that she was truly near death. That was the only way she’d ever allow herself to miss this night. And we all knew there was no way Emma could possibly play Wendy tonight. Despite her stubborn will, there was no way she could have gotten out of the house, much less the entire way through that night. There was no way Emma would make this last weekend of shows.
At least, that’s what I thought.
The next morning, I found my sister at our breakfast table ready to go to the theater for our performance. She winced as she forced herself to eat some oatmeal. She was not going to miss the final show that night. Emma was crazy for thinking she could do this! Just 12 hours ago she had been seizing and with fever, barely conscious.
Despite their fears, my parents allowed her to go. We didn’t want her to miss this incredible experience of closing night as Wendy Darling, NOT as the girl with cancer. We walked into the theater hours after most of the performers had gotten there for pre-show. There Emma stood – weak, pale, bald, sore filled mouthed, aching bones, sunken eyes, empty stomach, chemo brained… and smiling. Stagehands took her back to her dressing room. Makeup artists came in and batted her face with foundation, rogue and blush. A smile came across her face as the wig maker entered the room. The Wendy wig was perfect.
“If I fall asleep in that bed,” Emma said to me backstage, drowsy as she pointed to our nursery set, “please wake me up.” I nodded back. When the curtain opened, once again, my sister turned on like a light switch when the show began. Where her energy and light came from, I have no idea. My sister has always amazed me. But I thought it was because things came so easy for her. She was outgoing, athletic, beautiful and talented in all areas. But here she was: near death with cancer and winning. My sister is a pillar of strength, determination and stubbornness. Emma was showing me and everyone that every person deals with things in their life that are not within their control – but that doesn’t mean those things rule your life. Emma went limp like a noodle as soon as she was off-stage after each scene. At one point, the boy playing Peter Pan, carried her up a flight of stairs to the top of our stage set prior to scene opening. But no one in that theater knew what she was going through. She pushed through the pain and exhaustion and made it the entire way through the show. Emma took her final bow and collapsed backstage.
The story of Emma playing Wendy in “Peter Pan” while having cancer is now the story of legends amongst our theater community. Emma proved to the world and me that she is a “winner”, not because of the gifts she was blessed with, but because of the fight inside her.