My phone rang in Western New York. It was my sister calling from Tennessee. We hadn't seen each other in years, and our phone conversations were rare.
"I need to tell you something," Brenda said. "I have a brain tumor. They're still running tests." She spoke matter-of-factly, as if to report a case of the flu. She ended the call as she always did. In her soft Tennessee twang, she said, "Love you, honey."
Even after her condition worsened, I told myself not to go see her. I had my reasons. Through childhood, Brenda and I lived in a household on fire. Our parents were abusive – to each other and to us. After we left home, we kept in touch over the years, but she became a reminder of the fire that still burned us both. Whenever we were together, I had a lump in my throat and felt an urge to run away.
But I had other reasons, too. Over time our differences piled up on me like stones until they were all I saw. I wrote college textbooks, read philosophy, was skeptical of religion and listened to rhythm and blues. She fancied herself a redneck woman, embraced Christian fundamentalism, listened to gospel music and read all of the books I wouldn't touch. Somehow a dog and a swan had come from the same mother. And I still don't know why these contrasts mattered so much to me.
A few days later, the doctors' reports were even more alarming, so I reluctantly left for Tennessee where I spent several days at her side. Test results came back, and somehow I got the job of telling her the bad news. She had the same kind of cancer that had killed our mother. I had no idea how she would react to this verdict, but I was bracing for the worst.
"You have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," I said. "But it can be treated." I was astonished when a slight smile brightened her face and she said serenely, "I kinda expected that. What's the next step?" I had thought she would cry or sigh or fall into silence. But she didn't. I had never before seen anyone react to terrifying news with such grace.
I had never pictured her with a lot of friends, either. But I found out she not only had dozens of friends, they all adored her. She worked in the financial department at a hospital. When news spread of her cancer, nurses and co-workers lined the hallways, holding hands and praying for her recovery – a rite repeated over several days. My little sister had inspired the kind of devotion reserved for saints.
I had been ignorant of who she really was, yet I was supposed to be the smart one.
Somewhere in that week, something inside me slid into place. Feelings that I had tried to forget eased into their proper position. All my alibis withered in the light. All our differences were suddenly irrelevant, and I had trouble remembering why I thought they were important in the first place.
After her second dose of chemotherapy, Brenda developed pneumonia. They transferred her to the ICU and gave her antibiotics and oxygen. Within 48 hours she was gone.
For days afterward, I saw everything through a haze, and the whole world seemed tilted the wrong way. But I at least knew this: After years of virtual estrangement from my sister, for seven days we were finally and truly brother and sister. A week may not seem like much, but in that time we were a genuine family for the first and last time.