A word I would have previously labelled as one of my favorites. As in “what chance did I stand against kismet?” As in how the fuck is my sister’s kismet to be diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer at age 28. Life was not meant to go this way.
The day my sister was born, my grandparents took me to the hospital to meet our new addition. My three-year-old self carefully unwrapped her, examining every finger and toe, tracing the contours of her face, and contemplating this being who had arrived in our lives. I like to think that in that moment, I knew. I knew that Maya would disrupt my world with unparalleled vivacity and resolve; that she would be boisterous and extroverted, witty and charming. My shy, introverted self felt unready to cope with such a force of life. Naturally, I came to the most logical conclusion possible: I told my parents they could take her back, we didn’t need to bring her home. What I didn’t know is that by shattering my world, Maya would make me whole. I would hate her at times, but love her always. She was sometimes my enemy, but also became my best friend. Our childhood was magical, filled with dreams and imagination. Yes, there were plenty of moments marred by tears and fights and unjustly malicious comments. But these were far outweighed by those of love, joy, and laughter. Until Maya realized how decidedly uncool I am, she was my little shadow; I her fiercest protector. She made the mistake of emulating my tom-boy style, backwards baseball hats, basketball shoes and all. We spent hours bonding over sports, 90s TV shows (Saved by the Bell, Dawson’s Creek), video games and physical games (pongs, tamagatchi eggs, zoombinis, N64), love of specific music (NSYNC was all her though), our menagerie of pets (yes, we even had bunnies), epic family vacations, food, and our South African heritage. At childhood summer camp, I frequented the nurse’s office with Maya whenever she had nosebleeds. When our elementary school went on its annual camping trip, I would sneak into her cabin with (contraband) strawberry mentos to allay her fear and homesickness. I’m quite sure I even threatened to beat up anyone who ever made fun of her. I will reign in my nostalgia before this turns into a novel, but I want to share two more special memories. The first is that Maya and I frequently used to host sleep-overs... for each other... in each other’s rooms. We thought we were brilliant for bypassing any need for parental permission, and my parents did a great job hiding their amusement. In homage to this tradition, I slept in Maya’s bed every night before I returned to college after visiting Cincinnati. In our teenage years, the maturation of these sleep-overs brings me to memory number two: drives in my Mini Cooper with all the windows down and music blasting, specifically in the Fall. In those moments we could have deep talks, yell or cry, vent, or just be in the aura of the music. In those moments, we created a sacred space and deeper appreciation for one another. In those moments, Maya became my person. And as adults, no one can pull off a sisters’ wine-and-cooking night quite like we can.
Maya and I are like a yin and yang of sorts: seemingly different, but actually complementary and interconnected. We appreciate and understand one another in a way that no one ever will. Sometimes I laugh at situations, movies, or jokes because I just know how much Maya would be laughing with me and inserting her laserlike sarcasm. Similarly, certain songs are so much better because I know they will make it onto our playlists. And don’t even let me get started on food and recipes. This bond led the two of us to write emails to one another when we lived apart. The majority of these took place in list form thanks to Maya’s obsession with organization, with titles such as “10 reasons I’m grateful to have you in my life,” “10 reasons I love you,” or “multiple reasons I love my sister.” If she initiated the list, I always responded. And vice versa. I’ve recently found a few of these e-mails, archived away. In one of them I told her “I want to be able to bring a bottle of wine over and just sleep over in your bed when you don’t feel like facing the world.” I imagined many situations when this action might become relevant. None of them included her being diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer at age 28.
Cancer is a terrorist, pure and simple. It blindsides innocent victims on some idle Tuesday, unexpectedly and seemingly without reason. Fear, terror, and uncertainty follow. But let me tell you, Maya has faced cancer with the personal strength of a true hero. Her bravery is humbling; her fortitude inspiring. The past ten months have been incredibly trying, but she never complains. She never pities herself. Her beauty and charisma continue to shine through the darkest of times and she has charmed her entire treatment team with her magnetic aura.
MyMy: you are, quite simply, amazing. I don’t know why this is your kismet. The only way I can make sense of it is to believe that sometimes the strongest people have to go through the hardest life lessons. And I think, in doing so, you’re teaching those around you. In no particular order, here are some lessons you’ve taught me in your dealing with this unfair hand:
1) Never underestimate the power of humor. Sometimes you can really only laugh or cry, and laughter is often preferable. You have the ability to find humor, even in the form of sarcasm, when life just really sucks. For example, normal people go to the hospital in ambulances and behave like nightmares. You manage to ask the EMTs all about their lives and then tell me “you haven’t really lived until you’ve been in an ambulance.” A normal person, after a fainting spell resulting in a big open chin laceration, would feel quite upset. You put a smile on your face and remind us to “keep your chin up.”
2) Don’t wallow in misery; focus attention outward. You manage to spend so much of your time actively trying to improve the world. When your immune system was strong enough between chemo sessions, you were so happy to be able to volunteer at a blood drive with your eighty-year-old neighbor. When you woke up from surgery, drugged and recovering in the PACU, all you wanted to talk about was creating spa-like centers for cancer patients to help them live more fulfilled lives, and deal with cancer better.
3) Show appreciation for others. You never stop thinking about the people in your life. You drop off presents for your nurses and write cards for people who show you kindness. You managed to bring the woman who helped get your blinds installed to tears. Your friends are frequent recipients of everything from thoughtful gift boxes to plane tickets. You treat your family members to dinners and massages. And more than material goods, you offer wisdom. I don’t think a day goes by where you don’t help a friend or family member vent as you provide support and advice like the sage that you are.
4) Never underestimate the power of hugs. You give the best, most perfect hugs. The squeeze-tight, I-love-you-with-all-of-me kind of hugs.
5) Find gratitude in grief. Keep a gratitude journal. Don’t let a day go by without acknowledging what made that day good. Be thankful for the dentist.
6) Generosity is a gift; pay it forward. I love that you win a $500 amazon certificate and, without hesitation, give it to your cleaning lady.
7) Sometimes you really just have to lean in to the suck. You have a phenomenal ability to take everything, and I mean everything in stride. From cold caps and hair loss to the terror of finding your veins during chemo to going through such a big surgery and awful post-op course...you suck it up, you cope, and you manage to find strength in misery. Life is tough, but you are tougher.
8) Not all family members are blood-relatives. Build an army of supporters. You have fostered such strong relationships, with friends and family alike. And they’ve shown up for you. I have to add a quote from Chelsea Handler’s most recent book because we’ve discussed how pertinent it feels: “I’ve learned that many people are just bridges to someone else. Some people become bridges that you take back and forth to get back to yourself. That’s how I interpret self-defining relationships. The people who bring you back to you. The ones who say, “you are always welcome here. You are family. I love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so get used to it.”
9) Focus on finding joy and awe. Think about what makes you tick, and make sure that manifests in your life. Bring that puppy home; go to that writing course; meditate; go for walks on the beach and appreciate the beauty of the world.
10) Exposing your vulnerability can be a sign of strength. When the PET scan doesn’t show what we want it to and you’re feeling so much more terrible than you like to let on... cry. Let people hug you and love you and show up to support you.
This battle has been rough so far (understatement of the century). This cancer thinks it can be relentless, but let me tell you something it doesn’t know: in this fight, you sting like a bee.
So, my sweet pea, I hope you know that my love and respect for you is ineffable. As you told me the other night “it’s pretty amazing to have a sister as a soulmate.”
To the moon and back,
“you're my little sister. i love you. at times i hate and am hurt by you. but i also hurt you and i hate myself when i do. because at the end of the day just want to be there for you... to be a shoulder to cry on and person to hug. i want to be able to bring a bottle of wine over and just sleep over in your bed when you don't feel like facing the world. just never forget that as alone as you feel... you're stuck with me for life. and i love you.”
“you're my big sister. i love you. at times i hate and am hurt you. but i also hurt you and i hate myself when i do. because at the end of the day i just want to be there for you... to be a shoulder to cry on and person to hug. i want to be able to bring a bottle of wine over (or a box of chocolate...let's not get to margie on ourselves) and just sleep over in your bed when you don't feel like facing the world. just never forget that you're stuck with me for life. and i love you.”