I can tell you exactly how it feels.
I’m capable of enduring almost any level of physical and emotional pain. But when someone I love is hurting, that pain is transformed into something epic and primal; a meat hook that suspends me from my sternum.
The greatest fear in my life has come to pass, and I would give anything to change the circumstances. Marilou, my little sister, is once again fighting cancer, with lesions on multiple organs, her bones, and her brain.
How many ways can a heart break?
Although she is gifted at friendship, Marilou is a thoughtful, solitary, private person, and I try to respect that privacy. But I want you to know her, just a little, and to see her as I do.
We have always been close, more friends than siblings, which is the way of our family. As a child she was a fussy eater, but ravenous when I held her silver spoon in my own small hand. Times when I came home with bruised knuckles often correlated perfectly with her tendency to speak her mind to much bigger kids.
But truth be told, whether she was singing to aunts and uncles for spare change, or making Dad laugh so hard he couldn’t punish her, Marilou always knew how to slide past trouble. She seldom needed anyone’s help. When she was in full flight, her banner unfurled, I was relegated to the supporting cast. But, even as a kid, I knew that was the proper order of things. It seldom bothered me.
How could it? Something about that curly red hair, that impish-yet-cherubic face, always turned anger to laughter and frustration to good times.
As we grew, skinning our elbows and our hearts, we became closer. I kept her secrets. I was an assistant coach for her volleyball team, and chaperoned her junior high school dances, and never once told Dad that she was watering down his vodka. Gail never learned that Marilou was driving her car around the neighborhood even though she wasn’t yet legal. We comforted each other when our father died young. When we were split down the middle by a devastating two-faced betrayal, we shared a bottle of good wine and chose to rise above it.
But she has always been, and will always be, my little sister. And she’s always been a caring and loving friend. I hope that helps explain how gutted and empty I feel these past weeks.
Great pain extinguished my belief in a higher power, but there are greater things that I cannot see or hold. Like my love for my little sister.
And while I could write about sweet, soft lullabies, I will not. I want these words to be a brother’s anthem, a rousing chorus that rises and swells, and promises great deeds. Because, like our mother, Marilou can lick her weight in wildcats.
She carries a tattoo on her hip. The Japanese characters recall Budo — The Way of the Warrior. We shared years of training in Shotokan karate, and both hold black belts. We’re both fighters, in the best sense of the word. We face challenges bravely, muster calmness when our insides are roiling, have the ability to endure pain that might well break others.
I cannot fight this battle for her. But I can cook meals, hold her hand when she’s inserted into that cold MRI tunnel, and show her I love her with words and deeds. Everyone in my family is doing much more, and in this way she is blessed. Her people in Queensland and Tantallon have already shown support for her in a way that would touch the coldest heart, raising thousands to help support complementary treatments and compensate for lost wages. Marilou has been overwhelmed by their generosity, and each member of our family has been touched.
We will pay it forward.
I wake to grief every morning, and it threatens to consume me. But I also possess the heart of a warrior, so I gain strength in good times, in fond memories, and know we will make new, good memories in the coming months. Why, we’ll become a great-aunt and -uncle in just a few weeks, and my first-born niece will soon be married.
And in the meantime, we can remember the best times. The event itself has been lost to memory, but I remember Mom catching Marilou making serious mischief even though she was still in diapers.
Mom was furious, but she looked at her little angel, and couldn’t keep from grinning.
“Marilou, you’re awfully cute,” she said. “But you’re B-A-D!”
Marilou beamed. “That spells ‘sweet’, doesn’t it?”
In our house, it always has.