The following is the text of my essay that recently appeared in The Southampton Review. You can order this fantastic literary journal at thesouthamptonreview.com. It looks much prettier in the publication!
My Sister’s Voice
In the end I only wanted to hear my sister’s voice one more time.
They’d found a cancerous tumor lodged in her airway. I was grateful I had spoken to her on the phone just before they intubated her; the tube down her throat bringing life saving air to her lungs but not allowing her to speak. Linda was in Florida and I in Connecticut, but the fear in her voice cut across the miles. “If I get through this one, I swear I will stop smoking,” she told me in gasps of breath. It was something I had begged her to do for many years. She was never ready to give up “one of my few pleasures.” Now, she was ready and I was afraid it was too late.
I was at a concert with my son when I got the news that she had been intubated and was in intensive care. Bob Dylan was playing at a baseball stadium in a neighboring town. The place was packed with fans who knew all his lyrics, serving up a continuous background chorus to Dylan’s rasping “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Shelter from the Storm”. It was a sweltering summer evening in Connecticut with no wind and stick-to-the skin humidity. The kind of night that demanded cold beer. I had just headed to the concession stand as my cell phone rang. Stopped short on the concrete steps as people pushed past me to get their fries and hot dogs. The noise around me forced me into a corner to hear, covering my exposed ear and pushing the cell phone squarely against the other. Still, the information didn’t seem to make the leap. Some kind of insurmountable chasm from phone to ear to brain.
When Linda’s daughter had called me the day before from Florida, we thought her trouble breathing was a reaction to a new medication. I was not greatly alarmed, thinking this was just another chapter in my sister’s long history of health issues. All my life I had watched in awe as she overcame each one, and I was certain she would come through this one too. My mother had once proclaimed her our “little soldier” and Linda had never forfeited a battle.
Linda was two, and I was not yet born, when a plane crashed into my family’s home. She survived the explosion and resulting fire that killed our older sister, Donna.
Critically burned, Linda was not expected to live. Nuns at the Catholic hospital prayed at her bedside, saying she was very close to God, a notion meant to comfort my parents, but one that only frightened them. My father matched the St. Christopher medal on Linda’s pillow with a Star of David. He told me he was ready to take a miracle from any God who would listen. I believe my sister survived, however, through her sheer force of will.
As a child, I was a witness to Linda enduring surgery after surgery to put her poor body back together. Right after the accident, I knew that doctors had to enable her breathing through the burned and narrowed airway. The same compromised airway that she later fed with smoke and nicotine.
When I was six, I waited at the top of the stairs in our split-level home, wearing a white nurse’s costume, complete with a blue Florence Nightingale cape. I watched my sister’s face, her cheeks wet, as paramedics turned her, in her full body cast, trying to angle her to fit through the narrow front door. She caught my eye and we both smiled, each recognizing the other’s fear, our mutual protective instinct helping us through the moment. That winter I pulled snow off the roof outside her window to build her a snowman, complete with raisin eyes, a carrot tip for a nose, and a sock for a hat. I placed it back on the roof where she could see it from her bed; watch the raisins slip, the carrot finally drop and the sock slosh onto the wet slate as the weather warmed. The melting meant we were growing closer to the time when Linda would be freed from the prison-like cast.
At eighteen, one surgeon offered to repair her facial scars. She would squint as she looked in the mirror, imagining what she could look like—and if we might finally look like sisters. The promise of her new face captivated us both. She dreamed, and I dreamed with her. She might not need two hours each day to put on her makeup, applying the pink and green tints, the heavy foundation, the setting powder. I marveled each time at the transformation. How her Bette Davis eyes were accentuated, and the red-brown scars took a back seat to her ready smile. Linda gave me a sharp hug that day before she left for the hospital.
But it wasn’t to be. The scar tissue was too deep, and the risk of facial paralysis was too great. After that disappointment, she announced that she had had enough reconstruction—the world would have to accept her as she was.
“Take it or leave it, this is me, “ she said, always with a smile.
“Intubated” sounded so careful, like putting her in safekeeping, inserting the breathing tube as they had after the accident when she was two. This time, though, the smoke would win out.
A few days after that Dylan concert, as I sat with her in the hospital, she wrote on a pad to me: “Did you get all the information you need? Are you okay with what is going to happen?” Still looking out for her little sister, helping me accept her imminent death and understanding what the doctors had told us; the chemo had no effect, there was nothing more to do. I shook my head, first “yes,” then “no.” My words stuck in my throat.
I was just finishing the edits on my memoir. She had helped me with the story by filling in details that only she was privy to, secrets my mother had concealed from me, as well as Linda’s own emotional journey. When I delivered the manuscript to her I told her I would take out anything she disliked. She didn’t change a word. “This is your story,” she told me. Later, I would find the beginnings of her own story on her computer.
We had joked that when the book came out, we would go on Oprah together. I had finally realized that my story, about growing up in the shadow of the sister who died, was also very much about Linda and our childhood together. In the hospital she wrote me a last note, urging me to “push” to publish the book to tell our story.
I feel her pushing me still. And I clearly hear her voice.