From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul


Empathy is your pain in my heart.

Author Unknown

I answered the phone, for what seemed to be the hundredth time that July afternoon, with my typical phone greeting announcing the name of the company where I worked and identifying myself. The person at the other end paused, and I heard a barely audible voice say my name. A voice that I would recognize anywhere because it sounded hauntingly similar to mine. A voice that I had been hearing ever since I could remember. A voice that had called for me as a playmate. A voice that had scolded me in sibling anger. A voice that had soothed away tears. A voice that had sung again and again in harmony with mine.

Immediately I asked, “What’s wrong?”

A voice I knew so well could not hide the fear. A voice that had shared whispers and secrets. A voice that had given information reserved for the most special friends. A voice that had spilled out hardships and joy, sorrow and delight. A voice that could laugh and light up a room. A voice that I had often envied and looked up to. A voice that I had learned to respect, love and cherish.

The voice on the other end of the phone line that was now silent. I waited, as I had often learned to wait on this voice. A voice that I had developed a patience for because I had found that it sometimes needed me to wait. A voice that was often soft, even silent, but always had something important to say.

I could hear a slight tremor as the voice of my sister began to speak. My heart raced in anticipation. Her words were carefully chosen so that I wouldn’t be too upset. But the words didn’t matter to me. I would have known even if she had been speaking a different language. Her voice gave it away. Something was terribly wrong.

“It’s Lauren,” she said simply.

And then she broke. I could hear the quiet sobbing at the other end as my mind searched to fill in the missing pieces. Just saying the name of her ten-month-old daughter had caused her to lose the only fragment of composure that she had left. So I waited on her voice.

“We’re at the hospital. She had an ear infection. She couldn’t stop vomiting. They did a CT scan. There’s some sort of a dark spot—a mass on her brain. They’re transferring her to Columbus for more tests. The ambulance will be ready in just a few minutes. I can’t get in touch with Mom and Dad.” All in broken speech. Spitting out words. That voice managed to convey to me the reality that was even worse than what my imagination had already conjured up.

“Which hospital in Columbus? I’ll meet you there.”

The words that I heard myself say sounded much more calm than I felt. But that had always been my job. Even though I was the youngest child, I had always felt a need to be the strong one for my sister. She always seemed to be so much more emotional. Somehow weaker and more frail. As the middle child, she had been the peacemaker between our older brother, Mark, and myself while we were growing up. Yet somehow she had always seemed to be less independent, more in need of support.

Cindy and I had always been different. We liked it that way, most of the time. Except when I wanted to be just like her because she, with the two years she had on me, represented something so much more wise and mature. Usually, though, we accepted our differences and allowed each other freedom to be unique.

One of those unique qualities was our temperament. She was the sweet, innocent one with lots of friends and many boyfriends. I was the tomboy who fought with Mark, climbed trees and couldn’t get a boy to notice me until I was sixteen. Her senior year in high school, she was voted onto the Prom Court. My senior year highlight was competing in the state track finals.

We had a few things in common, though, the most prominent of which was music. Because our family had a slight musical orientation, we had been encouraged to sing and play instruments since before we could really remember. So through piano lessons, band instruments and school and church choirs, music became a part of us.

Cindy sang alto. She was a natural. Everyone said it. Even before I really knew what an alto was, I knew it was my sister. And I was proud of her. (Except when I wanted to sing alto and found that I wasn’t exactly gifted for harmony. But I got over that quickly.) It seemed rather convenient that I become a soprano. It made sense. What good is an alto without a soprano? And who better to be her soprano than me?

So we began to sing together. At our small church, in the car, at camp, with the family. Anywhere we happened to be. We realized that our voices blended well because they sounded a lot alike. Something hereditary, maybe. Then we began to sing together so often that we thought alike. So not only our sound, but our rhythm was the same.

I’m not sure when I realized that Cindy was my best friend. Because she was older than I, we had some different interests and different friends throughout our school years. We shared everything else though. Especially clothes. And when she went away to college, both of our wardrobes were tragically divided in half. I visited her often at college, and we wrote many letters to one another. By the time I had to choose where to go to college, it only made sense to follow my sister, if for no other reason than to regain my wardrobe!

College was the first time where we really had a choice whether or not to spend time together. We could have gone our separate ways, but it was only natural that we were together. We even roomed together for one semester. In fact, we were together so much that no one believed we were sisters, since we didn’t look at all alike.

So when she got married, I was the maid of honor. When she had a baby, I spoiled her baby rotten. And when she found out that her daughter was sick, I was the one she called.

The six-hour drive from my home in southern Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, took about three hours that evening after her phone call, and I spent the entire drive in prayer. In my state of mind at the time, it was a miracle that I didn’t get a traffic ticket, or have an accident. I couldn’t even really remember the trip.

I only remember the look on my sister’s face as I found her in the hospital room. The room was quiet as I entered, except for the beeping of the heart monitor. Cindy was standing by the bed, looking at her sleeping child, who was wearing the tiniest hospital gown that I had ever seen. She heard the door as I slipped in, and I saw a look of relief cross her face.

“I was worried about you,” she said as I crossed the room to hug her.

She was worried about me. All that she had been through in the last few hours and she was worried about me. Typical of her to think of my safety. She was right, of course. I had driven like a maniac to get there. She knew me well.

The situation was at a standstill for the night. Lauren had been stabilized. Cindy had gained control of her emotions, and her husband, Roy, seemed to be as calm as he always was. A nurse was nearby. Nothing else was to be done until the next morning when more tests could be run.

Cindy and I slept in my car that night, or tried anyway. Only one parent was allowed to stay in the room, and she decided that it should be Roy. We put the seats as far back as they would go and tried to get comfortable. She told me the whole story of what had happened, and we cried, I think. I did, anyway. We were afraid. She told me that she was glad I came. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, we fell asleep together from exhaustion.

I’m not sure that I will ever forgive myself for leaving. I stayed for a day, but felt like I needed to return to work as I felt fairly useless at the hospital anyway. Word had finally reached my parents, and they arrived early that next morning. Others came, too—relatives from both sides of this tiny child’s family. So, with my sister’s permission, I went home shortly before a scheduled MRI that would probably take hours.

I never stopped praying. Questions of why ran through my head, but mostly I just prayed for healing. I knew God, and I knew that he was capable of healing my niece if he chose, even though her illness was still undetermined. God knew.

That evening, when I heard my mother’s voice on the telephone, I knew that the news was not good. Brain tumor. The size of an adult fist. Malignant.

“How is Cindy?” I needed to know.

But my mom didn’t have to tell me. I knew. How would any mother be upon learning this about her ten-month-old child? My sister needed me, and I wasn’t there. It didn’t matter to me that other people were there for her. I wasn’t there. No one understood her like I did. No one knew her voice the way I knew it.

The next few months were something of a blur. Hospital rooms. Surgeries. Nurses. Tests. IVs. Medications. Needles. Doctors. Chemotherapy. Treatments. Sickness. Pain.

Yet, over those months, I witnessed a change in Cindy that amazed me. She was no longer the fragile, dependent sister that I had once thought her to be. She became strong. She had to. Her daughter needed her strength. And I, along with others, learned a great deal from her strength.

Cindy and I laughed a lot through those days. My mom and I took turns spending time at the hospital with Cindy and Lauren while Roy was working. We cried sometimes, too, but mostly I remember the laughter. We had always laughed together often, but it seemed that then we had to more than ever. Just to get through.

And we wanted Lauren to laugh. To experience some joy in the midst of all of the pain. To hear laughter. To know happiness and fun. Yet Lauren helped us to laugh. Such a small child filled with so much pain and so much life. Although we celebrated her first birthday in the hospital during a round of chemotherapy, we were still able to laugh.

Though the doctors sometimes gave less-than-hopeful diagnoses, we never stopped hoping. When Lauren was released from the hospital the day before Christmas Eve after three major surgeries, along with countless months of chemotherapy, hospital visits, and other complications because of this or that treatment, our prayers were answered. Her brain tumor was completely removed, and she was recovering remarkably.

Cindy was tired from the last six months of such an ordeal, but I have never seen her happier or more thankful. The end was nowhere near in sight. This would affect Lauren for the rest of her life, and at this stage no one could be quite certain how. But we had witnessed a miracle, and for a while, everything was blissful.

Decisions had to be made and doctors consulted. Lauren was seventeen months old but thin and frail. She had become emaciated during her chemotherapy and developed throat complications from the tubular feedings. After her last surgery, her brain had accumulated too much fluid, so she endured yet another surgery to install a shunt to remove the fluid.

She was a fighter through it all. Her smiles and sweet disposition continued to charm and delight everyone who came into contact with her, especially her doctors and nurses. Every moment spent with her was cherished as well as entertaining. Though the medical care that her mother had to provide for her at home was often painful, she was immediately forgiving, with laughter not far behind. Her patience and endurance touched the lives of everyone around her. Stories of her frail strength spread to those who did not know her but had been keeping her in their prayers.

Doctors listed the odds of recurrence. Further treatments were decided upon. The insurance company was consulted but declined payment. The self-donor bone marrow transplant, for which her bone marrow had been harvested seven months before, was considered to be in developmental stages. The insurance wouldn’t cover it. Without the treatment, the chance of reccurrence significantly increased.

Lauren didn’t know that. I’m guessing that she only knew that the pressure and pain that she had been feeling were gone. Her personality and liveliness blossomed further. Her mother watched with caution, but obvious joy, as she saw her only child seemingly healthy again. For a month, Cindy was given that gift.

During that time Mark got married. Cindy and I were both in the wedding as “groomswomen.” We stood up for our brother, on his side, as he married our new sister. And we sang, together, of course. I think it was the best that my sister and I have ever sung. We had witnessed the miracle of life. We knew more about love than we ever had before, and we sang about it—for my brother, for his wife, for Lauren, for ourselves. We sang, and we knew the meaning of happiness and thankfulness and hope and love.

Doctors wrote letters to convince the insurance company that this treatment was completely necessary; finally the decision was reversed. Lauren was scheduled for a round of massive chemotherapy to reduce the chances of cancer returning, but it would also kill all of her bone marrow. This would be followed by a painful bone marrow transplant and a long, grueling recovery.

Cindy was worried. We all were. Lauren’s tiny twenty-month-old body had been through so much. I was worried about my sister. Her twenty-four-year-old mind had been through enough trauma to last a lifetime, and a great deal of strain had been placed on her two-year-old marriage as well. I knew that she would endure, but I didn’t want to see that look on her face again. The look that a mother has when she can physically feel her child’s pain.

I didn’t know at the time that I would see an even more excruciating look in my sister’s eyes. Lauren was not strong enough to make it through the chemotherapy. She died of kidney and liver failure on the second day of treatment. The harsh chemicals were too much for her little body. She died in her mother’s arms.

Again, I was not there. May be it was better that way. But when I answered the phone call that was not even meant for me, it was Lauren’s father’s voice that I heard this time.

“I lost my baby,” he said in a broken voice that I hardly recognized.

No. No. No. For minutes that seemed like hours, I screamed in horror. I couldn’t even hang up the phone. I wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. The irony was too bitter. The reality too painful to bear. The treatment that was supposed to prevent further pain had taken her away. From my sister. From me. From life. No. It was simply too unfair.

Numbness developed over the next few minutes. I had been visiting my sister for the weekend, and it was just a short drive to the hospital. It seemed like the longest drive of my life. I wasn’t even sure what I would say when I got there.

“Can I hug you?” came out of my mouth when I saw her.

To the others who were already there, it probably seemed like a strange thing to say, but she understood why. And she let me hug her. She didn’t say anything. Not for quite a while, actually. I think it made the others in the room uncomfortable. I knew that her voice had nothing left to say.

Cindy sang at the funeral. Alone. A mother singing a final lullaby. Never have I heard a more beautiful voice. Heart-wrenchingly bitter. Agonizing. Loving. Aching. Unbelieving. Angry. Pained. Beautiful voice. The voice that I had heard all of my life. The voice that I thought I knew so well had acquired another dimension from the experience of life. The voice that had harmonized with me and laughed with me. I wondered if I would ever hear that voice laugh again.

The mark of grief never goes away. It holds a treasured memory. It cannot, nor should it, be forgotten. For a while, it defines our world. It holds questions that can only be answered after this life is through. Understanding will only come when finally there is no more pain.

Yet, for all of the pain that she has endured, Cindy never would have given up the joy of knowing Lauren. None of us who knew her would have. Even though she never heard Lauren’s voice say, “I love you, Mommy,” Lauren’s love still lives in her mother’s heart.

Cindy is still my older, wiser, more mature sister. Her closet still contains parts of my wardrobe. And she is still my best friend even though we have both changed and will continue to do so.

Her voice has changed with her. It is now a voice that is more aware. A voice that has seen pain and grief. A voice that is stronger. A voice that is somehow more confused and more understanding at the same time. A voice that knows about life and love. A voice that knows about holding on and letting go. A voice that has lost faith yet still hopes. A voice that laughs the laugh of experience.

Yes, Cindy and I still laugh together. We can laugh together differently than we laugh with anyone else. A special kind of laughter. A cherished, understanding laughter. At anything we happen to find funny when we are together. And when we are not together, we think of each other and share it later.

And we cry sometimes. We cried when Lauren’s little brother was born. I was there this time.

And we sing together when we can. Our voices still blend well, I suppose. Maybe even better than before because of the experiences we have shared. Our thoughts blend together even when we are thousands of miles apart.

Now, when I hear my sister’s voice, I hear something else along with it. It’s quiet, barely audible, and it may be that no one can hear it but me. It has a slight heavenly overtone. I’m sure that it is the voice of an angel. The voice of an angel saying, “I love you, Mommy.”

Julie D. Workman

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