I stood against the wall of the small room and listened as the head resident talked to my sister. A group of interns looked on. “Do you have any other questions?” the doctor turned to me and asked. The day before, we had exchanged a few words and after he left the room, my sister said she thought there was going to be a fistfight.
“Well, she’s retaining fluids.” I did my best not to sound bossy. I know medicine can be a delicate balance but Joanie had been through some unfortunate suffering. “See here? Her arms and hands are swollen. She’s small. Usually her hands are boney.” He pressed his fingers into her skin.
“Debbie…” Joanie said in a soft hoarse whisper. “You keep bringing that up.” I know my sister. She thought I was worrying about how she looked. I let it drop.
“It’s very common,” the head resident said and started in on the explanation I had already heard. “We’re pumping a lot of fluids into her.”
I knew that but I have been through enough to know that sometimes things get overlooked. I kept quiet until they were finished, then walked into the hall with the medical team and whispered my words. “After my father’s surgery he was retaining fluids and they were concerned about his heart.” Joan had had two episodes of frightening, rapid heartbeat in the past 24 hours.
“That’s a valid concern,” he said. “But I can assure you her heart is fine. She is young and her charts look great.” I remained dubious.
When we were little, our mom used to say, “Darn it all…” when she saw us hurting. Darn it all!
There was no one I wanted to see more walk through the door right then than Mom and Dad. In the night, I had the calming sense that although they were in heaven, they were in the room with us, but I wanted to see them. Joan and I had been through our younger brother’s surgeries together, our older brother’s unforeseen death and both our parents’ Hospice care and passing. Now, without my sister by my side, I felt lost and lonely.
Darn it all! was all I could think to say through the night as she fought back her nausea. I held my hand against her forehead like Mom would do as I counted the seven clear bags hanging from the stand beside her bed, pumping all those fluids into her little body. I watched the pain on her face as her fingers gripped the side of her plastic bucket and I felt completely helpless. She suffers quietly. Only the tiny furrow in her brow speaks.
Over the last five days since her Whipple, as they call it, her little body has fought endlessly. Unexpected setbacks are to be expected. I am amazed at our medical field. I am amazed at the resilience of the human body and spirit. But I can’t bare seeing her in such misery and pain. She’s my little sister.
Oh sweet sister, we have shared more giant bowls of popcorn, bottles of Tab and glasses of wine together than anyone could count.
Headstrong and fearless, I think we tied in our ability to create strife in Mom and Dad over our earlier choices in life. You were the first to notice when I had been abused and speak up. We shared our blues, True Blues and big dreams. You were my maid of honor and I was yours. No one even came close to a tie there. Remember how I was too broke to afford a bridal shower gift for you and picked up antique napkins from a second hand store and told everyone they were a family heirloom? You knew the truth before I even told you.
Remember how you jumped a fence at Camp Randall at the Badger football game with your friend when I was a freshman at UW? You were ten! Somehow you were there without Mom and Dad knowing it. They made a touchdown just then and you ran in cheering on the racetrack below and actually found me, yelling “Debbie!”
I was the New York City bound actress in the family but you sailed right past me, arriving first with your plans already in place having won a scholarship to Joffrey.
You are the one always caring for others. I wonder, if in your stubbornness, this is what it takes to finally let all of us care for you? If so, that would be a cruel twist of fate wouldn’t it? These thoughts come to me in the hours of waiting by your side. I always need an answer for everything.
I smooth your hair and remember your baby blonde curls, I put socks on your feet and remember when the same feet pedaled bikes, took endless walks, skated and skied with me.
You had a special connection to Ed and when he died, I don’t think you ever recovered. Have you carried that grief all balled up inside you and this is God’s way of removing its weight? Like the rain weighed down the beauty of your rose, our tears press down on us until, from within, new life stirs, surprising us. There are no coincidences.
Mom always said Jesus’s Spirit in us is like a latté—pressed down, steaming up and spilling over with effervescence—renewed life. Be like a latté, Joanie.
I thought you might want to know that I think your doctor is wonderful—even more so because he was big enough to carry my fear and frustration without even a glimmer of emotion. He stayed so calm and yet he allowed me to feel empowered. How did he do that? After he left your room this morning, I walked out with him and gave him a hug. He didn’t really hug me back and then I realized it was probably against his religion. But even then, he was kind enough to receive it.
I wish you could see what your strength is doing to everyone around you—and your love. Mom and Dad would be so proud—I don’t know, maybe they really can see it all, just as I see it in the nurses’ faces when they enter your room. I watch the techs tiptoe where before they had clomped. I see it in your doctor. I see it your surgeon. They are all fighting for you with everything they’ve got.
I see it in all the messages from family and friends who check in everyday and continue to pray. And most precious, I see your love and strength in your husband and daughters—sisters like us. They are each so different and yet each so much like you.
Remember how I said God was doing surgery in all of our hearts through your surgery? I’ve watched it. I’ve seen it. You told me one of the doctor’s said that she could tell your family’s faith is strong. She told you she has always thought there was more than just this life, and that now she is praying for you.
I’ve watched your courage, Joanie, as it’s changed all of us around you. And I just know, God has great plans for you.