Saturday, March 12, 2011

The best-laid plans

Restarting the blog was the best of intentions, then Dad fell shortly before Christmas, and it's been the world's worst roller-coaster since then. Up and down, from hospital to nursing home, one week everyone planning for his death, the next he's better than he was since before the fall. I had to move him out of his apartment, which brought back such terrible memories of clearing out my sister's house, and since so many things in his place came from her home, it was heartbreaking at times. But I'm going to try to keep at this thing.

I was at the part of the story where I found out she had cancer. Her surgery had lasted more than six hours; I knew when it went past the four-hour mark that it was going to be bad news. Co-workers and online friends all said the same thing, that it was routine surgery, not to worry, but I'd been down this road before and I knew the direction it went.

Gretchen, the friend she'd relied on to be caregiver, called me at work to tell me they'd found cancer throughout the organs around her ovaries -- they had removed the ovaries, uterus, other organs, and some of her intestine, hoping they'd found all the cancer. How it had progressed so far, I don't know -- other than that, as usual, the doctor had poo-pooed her lingering illness, just as my mother's doctor had with her, a woman who was never sick but whose terrible, visible illness had been ignored for months until it was too late.

I put the phone down, and went to tell my colleagues, who all insisted I should go home. I wanted to go down to San Diego and be with her, but as Gretchen pointed out, there wasn't anything I could do and she'd already convinced me to go to Chicago. I flew out the next day, unable to talk to Karen before I went because she was still in recovery, numb from head to toe. Arriving at the hotel, I found most of the people I'd thought of as friends, and who knew what was happening, ignored the situation and acted as though nothing was wrong, making me feel even more numb -- and as though I'd stepped into the middle of someone else's play and didn't know the lines.

Fortunately, my roommate, a good friend from San Jose, had had abdominal surgery earlier that year, and she was kind and supportive, full of information about what the next steps would be in Karen's recovery. She was unique among the people I knew, because she was willing to listen to me talk, not judging, not expecting me to suck it up and pretend it was all OK. I met up with my old BFF who now lived in Chicago, and we toured the city, trying to keep my mind off things, though it was never out of my thoughts. I finally got through to my sister and was able to talk to her, even in her confused and frightened state, as my friend searched for her parking ticket in a downtown garage, the sickly green lighting above the car mirroring my mental state.

I spent the whole weekend going through the motions of having fun, but all I could think of was my sister, how fragile she was and how terrified she must be after hearing all that news. The hysterectomy was wreaking havoc on her hormones, and of course that much trauma to her abdomen meant she wasn't getting out of the hospital anytime soon, since bowel habits are the big deciding factor on release. By Sunday evening, though, she actually laughed when she told me they wouldn't let her go home until she "could fart," and I was overwhelmed by relief that she could at least find something to laugh about in the face of her pain.

Chemo was the next step, after she was released. They would only give her a few weeks to recover from the surgery before they began pouring toxic, deadly chemicals into her ravaged body to kill the cancer, along with pretty much everything else in her system. Knowing how skinny and less than healthy she had always been, and thinking of what the surgery had done to her, I couldn't imagine how she could withstand this poisonous treatment. But they'd set her on this course, and she was ready for it, even if I wasn't.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Rejected Before it Began

My sister's surgery was scheduled for a day in August when I was getting ready to fly out to Chicago for a convention I went to each year. I had lost my job earlier in the year, with all its accrued vacation time, and had become a contractor at an online magazine. The nice thing about being a contractor was that you could take off whenever you wanted; the downside was that you didn't get paid if you didn't work. Even though I didn't have the funds and would lose money for not working, I offered to come down for her surgery and even skip Chicago, but she wouldn't have it.

During my mom's long battle with ovarian cancer, I'd come to realize that Karen and I handled crises very differently, and she hated my style of dealing with illness, death, and all the attendant misery that comes with their details. She assumed that my ultra-quiet mode was simply a sign of being stupid and incompetent, rather than being in listening and thinking mode, carefully trying to consider all options. My tendency to worry and fuss over people, to be ultra-attentive and hyper-conscious of their needs, drove her batshit crazy.

After Mom died, I had tried explaining to Karen that she didn't know what it was like, the day in and day out caregiving, that she had no right to judge my behavior on something she was able to leave behind for most of the time. She had never borne the burden of being responsible, and it was easy for her to judge the things she didn't like about me. Living one thousand miles away made things a lot easier for her. But the issues were already there, festering, when time for her surgery came. Later Karen would tell me she needed me not to fuss and not to be silent and watchful, that I couldn't be emotional; I had to be her rock, she said. When we both knew I'd never been anyone's rock before, certainly not by the standards with which she judged a rock.

Years before, she had asked me to come down and care for her after surgery she was considering -- a breast implant. Horrified by the very anti-feminist concept, I had talked her out of doing it, or so I'd thought at the time. Months after her death, her friend told me that she had in fact gone through with the boob job. I was devastated at my failure to convince her, at the fact that she hadn't wanted me to be with her because she didn't want my disapproval, at the fact that she'd lied to me, and maybe most of all at the suspicion that the implants could have triggered her cancer and if I could have stopped her back then, maybe she wouldn't have got ovarian cancer.

But it was easy then to see why she hadn't wanted me to come down for her cyst surgery. I was fussy, I worried, I was incompetent, I had been negative about her previous surgery... there was nothing she wanted or needed from me. I had never heard of the friend, Gretchen, she said would be caring for her; in that moment I felt, not for the first time but certainly for the most strongly, so unlike a twin that I could have been merely a distant relative of Karen's she just happened to mention the surgery to when catching up on the latest family gossip. She'd rather have someone I had never heard her mention before take care of her after surgery than her own twin sister, who had cared for her mother for three years after cancer surgery and during chemo.

It was easy to push me away -- she knew I wouldn't get any money for days away from the job on top of the ones I was already taking for Chicago. And Karen had always been a shrewd saleswoman, she sold me on taking my annual vacation, convinced me that she wasn't as important because it was, after all, minor surgery, and I was eager enough to be convinced. Despite my belief that things were not going to go well, I accepted her proposal, and it was Gretchen who went to the hospital with her, and Gretchen who called me that awful August day to tell me they had found cancer.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Starting again

Four years. I abandoned this blog four years and some days ago. Trying to inject some life back into my life, I took antidepressants, but found that I couldn't write. Or read -- anything longer than magazine articles seemed impossible to focus on. People kept piling books on me; they're all still sitting on the shelf. Some of it might have been the work as an editor; after reading books all day and trying to fix things in other people's writing, reading for fun is like the busman's holiday.

But fast-forward four years, and I'm no longer on the antidepressants, for good or bad. And I'm thinking more and more of writing, about a lot of things, but mostly about my sister.

So, I should go back and start at the beginning. I don't want to forget it all, even though it is still so hard to accept. It's the most important thing that's ever happened to me, and defines who I am now, here at the middle stages of my life.

People who are at least a little wise know you don't forget a death of a sibling easily. They know you don't just get on with things. There aren't a lot of wise people in my life anymore; by now, everyone expects that I'm supposed to be back to normal. It's been five years, after all. I don't think any loss is that simple, but the loss of a twin makes it so much harder. To figure out how to stand on your own two feet instead leaning on that other back, doing whatever you do together, is something no one ever prepares you for as you discover what twinship is about, every day of your life.

Now I've discovered different things about that twinship as I've gone along without it. What it meant to me being part of that pair, and as an individual. And the nice thing about abandoning this blog is that now there is no one out there who remembers it, and I can write to my Imaginary Reader, to borrow a phrase from a friend. I can tell you, Imaginary Reader, about what it was like to grow up with a twin, what she was like as a person, and what it was like to lose her, and in doing so, remember the things that were important.

So, back to that beginning. The day I first knew she was going to die was the day she called me to tell me that she had a cyst on her ovaries, but that "the doctor isn't worried since I've had them before." But she had a strange, lingering cough, she said, bronchitis that wouldn't go away. And I knew that it was cancer the moment she said that.

Our mom had died from ovarian cancer seven years before. I had learned as much about the disease as I could, and everything Karen told me about her health clued me in. Of course I couldn't say anything, other than that I was concerned, and I hoped that they would schedule the "minor" surgery soon, since they'd already delayed for a long time while the doctor waited for the cyst to disappear.

The thing about the way cancer goes is that you never stop believing, from somewhere deep inside that's impervious to reason or experience, a miracle will happen and the person with cancer will be cured. Even at the moment of their death, you believe that somehow, some way, they will open their eyes and you will all breathe a sigh of relief at this narrow escape from its terrible clutches. Even then, when I first heard she was having surgery, I believed Karen would die, and yet I didn't believe she would -- some way, she would escape it, because she was my twin, and you couldn't lose your twin. It was unimaginable.

Yet there I was, imagining it. Nebulous though it was, the possibility had formed in my mind; in my heart, I knew even then it would come true. It was a probability, a certainty. All I could do was tell her that I could come down if she wanted me to and see her through the surgery, and express my concern that it might be something more, so please be careful. It's pathetic how mundane we are, even when faced with something we know will be terrible.

After that, I waited. I never spoke of what I believed then, nor through the rest of her treatment and death. Over the course of my life, I've kept a lot of terrible secrets for others; this was the first one I kept for myself.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ghost stories

If you were a ghost, you could follow me as I went shopping. We’d go to all your favorite stores: Barney’s, Mario’s, Kenneth Cole. I would hold things up for your approval, show you the latest styles, and you could sneer at them or ooh and aah, and no one else would know. I would laugh at your jokes and tell you stories, and everyone would think I was either crazy or talking on a wireless headset for my cell phone.

We would stop at a Starbucks and rest, even though you didn’t need it. I’d buy an extra tea in your honor that would sit across the table from me, untouched, and I would leave it there, because you never finished your teas, either. No one else would want to drink it, since you always put too much sugar in it. We would gripe about the state of the world, my job, our family, just for old time’s sake. I wouldn’t want you to feel like you didn’t belong.

You would tell me what to buy, and we’d smell soaps, perfume sprayed into your ghostly space, and I would put lotion on and offer it to you to smell. You liked the citrus scents the best. You could look at and smell all those things I bought you the last Christmas and birthday, the things you never took out of the packages because you were too sick.

Afterward we could stop at Palomino like always, and I’d pull up a chair in the bar, just for you. Bread pudding to share, and hot alcoholic drinks. I would put my feet up in the chair and tell you how much I miss you. There would hardly be any bags this time, because you are not really here to buy all those items we never needed, but always wanted.

As a ghost, you would still be practical, and bossy, and sharp. But you couldn’t slap my arm and I couldn’t step on your heels. The rain wouldn’t make you cranky and you would just tell me to suck it up when I complained that I was cold and wet. You would no longer be cold, would you? So, the world would be more pleasant. Except that you are gone.

But you would never feel sorry for yourself that you couldn’t try on those 7 For All Mankind jeans or that Me and Ro necklace I wanted to buy you. Well, maybe sometimes you would look away in your ghostly shimmer, and I would know that you missed this life -- the cold and the rain and the tea and the sore feet and the pressure of the holiday, and the one time each year we got to be twins and rediscover what we shared.

I want there to be ghosts, I want spirits of the dead to be real. I want to feel a breeze sweep over my hand that I know to be your touch, or see you as something fleeting and glowing out of the corner of my eye. But wanting doesn’t make it so, and ghosts elude me. It would not be the same if you were a ghost, even though you would be here next to me, inside me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Unhappy new year

We mark the time with calendars. Holidays and weekends, “the time we went to...”, start and end dates. Every year life is filled with New Year’s resolutions, lists of what happened the previous year, plans for the future. We celebrate the going out, the coming in, give it weight in how we plan our lives, what we wish and hope for.

Death becomes a different calendar, illness a different kind of resolution. After loss, our calendar shifts: no New Year’s Eve or Day, no holiday season, encompasses the time we keep to ourselves. The Before ended the day of the death; the New Year began just after. A new life without them, and our resolutions become about getting through the day, about not breaking down or floundering helplessly. Even if we don’t want to, we still keep time that way: It was this time last year that I lay in the guest bedroom, listening to her cry in pain and fear, while outside the neighbors blew off fireworks and yelled “Happy New Year!” This time last year she was in her final chemo, shrunken and waxy and haunted. This time two years ago we found out she had cancer after six hours of surgery.

Every Wednesday night I find, unbidden, that emotionally I am in a hospice room, begging my sister not to die. It's hard to sleep that night. My internal calendar knows it was the day and marks it for me, without my wishes. The calendar doesn’t hold meaning for me other than how I date my checks; instead, my months are numbered by their relation to the illness and death. New Year is now March 9: before there was a life with my twin; after there was the new year, new life, new world.

Resolutions aren’t made for the new year when someone you love is ill. Resolutions come with the news. We will fight the cancer. We will find a cure. We will get through treatment. We resolve to survive and have a positive attitude and feel better someday. Like all new year’s resolutions, they are a lie, and rarely accomplished. But lists make us happy. Resolutions of how we will bear the illness make us feel like we can do something, that it isn’t in the hands of negligent medical people and creeping time.

Time is your enemy and your friend. Time will let you forget, just a little, eventually. Some day. At least, we have to believe that, just like we believe our resolutions. But time moves fast in illness, and the calendar pages get ripped off, faster and faster as it progresses, till suddenly there is no time left. Only the backing of the calendar pad remains. It’s a new time, your After. No fireworks and party hats and champagne. This new year isn’t celebrated. But it’s marked, forever after, always in your mind even if you aren’t aware. It’s a calendar only you carry with you, and it has no holidays or weekends off.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Lost holidays

The birthdays of all my immediate family fall near a major American holiday. Throughout our childhood, my twin sister’s and my birthday was heavily associated with turkey and mashed potatoes rather than cake and ice cream. My father’s, two days after Christmas, was disappointingly linked to post-opened package enervation; his gifts usually last-minute shopping trips by frantic children to find something before Christmas time off that would be small enough not to break the already-spent bank, yet large enough to make it appear we’d gone to some actual effort. My mother’s birthday fell in between us all in early December, a holiday hybrid animal, like the reinelope or the turkdeer.

Mom devoted her efforts to making sure my sister and I weren’t forgotten in the Thanksgiving crush, and we in turn tried not to forget hers. She was especially mindful of our birthday because as twins, we received a double dose of being ignored. Relatives appeared to think of my sister and me as one sole unit and frequently showered us with gift — singular, because of course sharing one gift must be all right if you were a twin. Everyone knows twins want exactly the same things and share. If they were generous enough to give us two separate gifts, those were identical gifts. My parents inadvertently compounded with their fear of hurting our feelings, matching gifts as well and cementing the idea in others’ heads. If Karen wanted a hair dryer and curling iron set but I wanted a stereo, we got the beauty stuff. Parity was perceived in this, equality, but our individual happiness was not even a consideration, because we weren’t seen as individuals.

What made it worse was that most of the time, our birthday came on, or very close to, Thanksgiving, the most-traveled American holiday, the one everyone takes off from work, the big cheese of big days that spans religious affiliation for the most part. Only every decade or so would the birthday be far enough apart from the holiday, by a week or maybe five days, allowing us to believe that our day actually mattered. For the most part, most people forgot it. They were busy getting the food, planning the trip, dealing with the challenges of family and friends.

So, even the dreaded split gift was something, because there was at least some kind of acknowledgement in it. I’m fairly certain my mother had a lot to do with that — I could easily envision her on the phone taking care of the get-together information, telling whomever was showing up not to forget the twins’ birthday.

I loved it when our birthday fell on Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite holiday; I love that it’s centered around food — my favorite food — and that it’s not overtly religious or gift oriented. Trading cake for pumpkin pie was a happy sacrifice, and my birthday status usually got me out of the hard work in the kitchen afterwards, if my tryptophan-induced coma didn’t. It was an added festivity, and I figured that if you had to suffer your birthday around the major fall holidays, it might as well be on this one.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized a sense of loss; as Mom got sick and family became less central to my life, acknowledgement of our birthday slipped. On e-mail lists where members’ birthdays are acknowledged, mine is absent greetings except from a few kind people. It’s then I miss my mom’s behind-the-scenes efforts, her understanding of what it means to be forgotten because of a holiday.

Dad’s birthday, on the other hand, was a scramble. Although we knew it was coming, somehow it inevitably took pole position behind Christmas, and we’d frantically run after gifts and cards like sale-day shoppers wrestling for bargains. He never complained about the haphazardness of his gifts, and I often wondered if he even cared, as unsentimental as he was.

When Mom first got sick, though, holiday birthday dilemmas disappeared, replaced by graver concerns. What you got, or whether you were acknowledged, didn’t matter much anymore. Suddenly the favorite holiday in our house, Thanksgiving, became an peculiar test of ingenuity when Mom could no longer stand the smell of turkey. During her first chemo treatments in the hospital they gave her turkey dinners every day. After her first few visits, she brought her own yogurt and nutrition drinks to stash in the nurses’ refrigerator, and checked the box on her bedside form that said she did not want meal service. Yet every night when I visited her during treatment, some poor, rabbit-in-the-headlights orderly would bring her a turkey dinner tray, and Mom would become unglued at the sight of it. Or whiff, I couldn’t tell which came first.

The idea that you would feed anything but the blandest, least odorific food to a patient in serious chemotherapy treatment struck me as especially odd, but it wasn’t until I stood in a hallway and begged them to please stop bringing her turkey dinners, yet watching helplessly as they showed up again bearing their tray laden with poultry and potatoes and stuffing, that I understood her nearly hysterical reactions to turkey. When she was out of treatment the following Thanksgiving, it was the eight-year interval where Karen’s and my birthday fell on the holiday. My sister flew up for weekend, and instead of bemoaning our turkeyless fate (in a household that loved its turkey the way a glutton loves a dessert tray), we turned it into a joke, teasing mom about how fortunate it was that she’d lost her sense of smell so we could cook what we wanted, creating a ridiculous menu for her so she could eat what she wanted, and pouring her nutrition drink into a wine glass.

Mom loved to hit the wine during the holidays, and halfway through dinner preparation she usually started fanning herself, complaining about how hot it was. That year I poured her drink for her and fanned myself, asking her if it was really hot in there or what? She was a shell of a person by then, wasted and fried and skeletal but still possessed of a sense of humor, and I think she enjoyed being mocked about the turkey. It reminded her, it seemed to me, that she was alive enough for her kids to make fun of her.

These birthdays and holidays now are foreign territory. Without Mom’s cheerleading, the twin birthday is usually forgotten and it feels lonelier somehow, even though I know my sister will always remember the day with me. Dad doesn’t much care whether he celebrates his, other than to spend time with people. Mom’s day, is something I celebrate privately — sans turkey — but it’s still an important day, weightier now because she is gone. Holidays come and go, sometimes acknowledged, though more often lived as just another day, one we’re fortunate to have off work. Any holiday with turkey is a good one, especially if there’s a pumpkin pie or a birthday cake involved — or both — but I can never eat turkey now or open a present without thinking of her, and realizing that the celebration of these days is gone.


It is a few years after I wrote this piece now. My twin is gone, and I’ve made it through the first birthday I’ve celebrated in my life alone. There was turkey on Thanksgiving, but no thanks, and in a few days will be Christmas. We’ve passed Mom’s birthday, with Dad’s rolling up behind the holiday.

To say that it is empty is such an understatement that it makes me laugh, yet I have no vocabulary to express what it is. Something so dry and dark and hollow that it can’t really be described. Gifts that I wished I could split with her, gifts that I wished I could have bought her, but nothing to show for it.

I attempted to make our birthday a holiday of my own, a sad one of memorial, and brought flowers to the cemetery where Mom and Karen are buried. The sun shone and the air was cold, and I remembered how much she hated that, how bitterly she complained when she came home to Seattle so we could spend our birthday together, and go shopping in the post-Thanksgiving sales.

I think others believe that time will heal this, that once the first one is endured, the next ones will be easier. But I know they won’t. There is nothing here I can split, or share, and it is lost in the loss, without meaning or purpose.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

No more I love yous

Words like dust float in the air, unseen, unspoken. You will never hear them now and I have not spoken them in time; they will only float until they fall, unnoticed, pushed under the cabinet or the bed you lie on. Gathering there in time as other patients come in, collecting into dust-bunny piles of unsaid worthless sounds. Only, silent: if no one is alive to hear the tardy words fall, do they make a sound? No one else will see the words I couldn’t say, the ones you needed to hear but didn’t. The janitor will sweep them away with the rest of the detritus of a life at the end, my failures winding up where they deserved. So much rubbish.

Did you have words for me that mingled in the light, tangling like atoms invisible to our eyes, inaudible to our ears? Could the ending have been better if we’d spoken it aloud? The I love yous and the I need yous lighting a path for you to follow, easing the heartache and the loneliness and fear. You were so brave in the face of silence. Words should be a balm, not dust bunnies under a hospital bed, left there undiscovered and unheard, carted away with the body.