I have finally thrown away the card I bought for the birthday my little sister never celebrated.
For years after she died of breast cancer in her 30s, I would occasionally come across the card where it was tucked deep in my underwear drawer, and I would open it.
I would think of summers together, sharing a bedroom, confidences, conflicts, loyalty, hilarity, love. Tears would prick, and I would miss her terribly. Then I would regain my composure and close the drawer.
In thousands of similar moments across the 15 years since her death, the ability to maintain composure has been a precious tool – a barrier against loss of control, a denial of grief, a technique for staying strong.
I’ve been perfecting composure since the call I made to a women’s cancer hotline when my sister was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer a few weeks after the birth of her third child.
Our mother had died of breast cancer, also contracted before the age of 40, and my sister’s was at least Stage III. I wanted dispassionate information about what we would face.
The hotline volunteer was silent for a good 10 seconds, and then she said:
“How strong are you? You need to be strong for me to tell you the truth.”
Oh I am strong, but not nearly as strong as my sister – seven years my junior, a juggernaut, born with a tenacity that overwhelmed others but enabled her to accomplish just about everything she chose to do.
I have never seen a person fight so hard.
Her remarkable husband, her 8-year-old daughter and two sons, (newborn, 3 and 5 when she was diagnosed) and all her friends, surrounded her with the love that spreads against this despicable disease in millions of families every day. I could do nothing but stay in control, to be as strong as possible for her in the three years that my sister fought.
It was this month 15 years ago that my sister died, and it is in March that my own birthday falls. It was last weekend that my niece paid tribute to her mother in her university’s Relay for Life, as she has done almost every year of her young life.
This is a particularly difficult time of year, but it is a reminder that we all need to fight.
There is no greater demonstration of love than to fight side by side with the loved ones, friends and colleagues who battle against the horrific consequences of this disease, and often lose.
This video is very powerful: Melissa Etheridge sings I Run for Life
Image Credit: Leah Mariani, on SaatchiArt