While sitting at Starbucks one day, my mind drifts to my sister. It’s a quiet moment where I feel nothing but this overpowering sensation of empathy for her. Hushed tears begin to roll down my cheeks. Over the last 6 months, our mom’s cancer has been extremely difficult on all of us, yet it’s become clear exactly how much more difficult this is for my sister. Whereas I had a decade to flop around like a fish out of water in regards to my dysfunctional self, my sister has had no such luxury. Let me explain…
When my mother was initially diagnosed, I already had incredible therapeutic successes and was developing healthier outlets. My OCD was, for all purposes, becoming manageable; my anxiety could be readily diffused. I had begun to create boundary lines with my unhealthier friends. I didn't even need my mother’s sickness to start this process because keeping my own emotions balanced was a full time job. Please understand, all of this was and still is a work in progress, but the fact remained that I laid the foundation to healthiness years before my mother’s physical deterioration.
On the other hand, my sister being quite a bit younger than myself was not as mature. To her credit, she was already working on finding a healthier self, but her path appeared to have more challenges and seemed much harder for her; regardless of any setbacks, she has continued to soldier on in her quest for well-being; her growth unquestionable over the last years.
Our mother’s diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization came out of nowhere and had the momentum of an avalanche; we, the unsuspecting family, positioned at the bottom of the hill. All of us were blindsided, no doubt, but my sister's coping skills were not as well developed as the rest of us. So, it’s not surprising that its effect had a greater and more visible impact.
Adding to this, my mother used to be pillar of strength in our family dynamic, especially for my sister. See, our mother being a psychologist as well as our parent was a natural sounding board for us, children. We had such a high regard for our mother’s opinion that she was who we turned to for advice; whether we capitalized on it or not was a different story. With the deterioration of her health, our mother could no longer be the family pillar because her sickness sapped away what strength she had. In essence, my sister was not only facing a life altering issue with our mother’s cancer, but now, she didn't have the one person that she turned to for advice. It was like a double whammy!
Of course, our mother wishes that she could still be our rock, but the seriousness of her health doesn't make that possible. Anyone who has had cancer, personally or with a relative/friend, knows that chemo and/or radiation simply wipes the patient out. There’s nothing left mentally or emotionally for others. Watching my mom over the last several years struggle with cancer reminds me of a person trying to stay afloat in a vast ocean with waves and the whatnot crashing into them. To ask that person to carry additional weight while they’re trying to stay afloat is inappropriate.
Our mother’s precarious health has motivated my sister to make more of an effort to be there for our parents. She really tries to help and be emotionally available. The thing is that the path to healthiness is paved with many bumps and diversions. It’s quite common to take a few steps back when on this journey to self-betterment. Unfortunately, if our mother’s focus shifts to my sister rather than herself, the consequences are between life and death.
Is this fair? No, there’s nothing fair about cancer. I think it’s unreasonable to ask my sister to back burner her personal issues especially since I was able to revel in my own self-destruction for years, if not decades. There are no bad guys in this scenario. This is simply how it is.
I’m writing this piece for my sister so that she knows how much she is loved. I recognize her efforts and feel sad that her struggle is so tedious. If I had a magic wand, I’d wipe away her dysfunction, but that’s not how it works and I’m not sure if it should work that way. Cancer asks all of us to be more than our human-selves not only for my sister, but for my mother as well. She hides her pain and exhaustion to the best of her abilities as we hide our incredible sadness and need for her. The unfairness seems to be an equal opportunist.
As tears roll down my cheeks for my sister, a kind stranger hands me a napkin and says, “It will get better.” I smile at her thoughtfulness and say nothing because when it comes to Stage 4 cancer, it doesn't always get better. I have no control over the realities of this disease. The only power that I have today, tomorrow and every day thereafter is to acknowledge how difficult this is for all of my family and to hold that recognition within my heart!