From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Hidden Treasure

Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?

Alice Walker

Several years ago, a blunt, and as it fortunately turned out, brilliant doctor removed a suspicious mole from my back. Two weeks later he called me at home on a Friday night to announce, “You have malignant melanoma. You’re lucky we found it this early. Six months from now, you might have been dead. Come in Monday for more surgery.”

My hard-earned independence dissolved as I hung up and began dialing my sister’s number automatically. I hadn’t even realized I knew it. I got her machine and managed, in what I thought was a calm voice, to choke out, “Give me a call.” Then I sat on the floor, wondering through a haze of terror, why I’d called Lori. It was instinctive and yet . . .

We had been very close as children. Almost three years old, I decided to be her guardian starting on her first night home from the hospital when I woke my exhausted parents because I heard her whimper in her crib.

“My little sister’s crying. Go get her,” I commanded imperiously, glaring into their sleep-deprived faces. I then followed them doggedly down the hall to her little bedroom. Just to make sure.

It was just the start. By the time she was two, she was climbing out of her crib every night, scampering down the dark hallway and leaping into my “big girl’s bed” to spend the long nights snuggled by my side. My beleaguered parents finally disassembled the crib and gave her a little bed next to mine. Sometimes, we fell asleep holding hands. Every Christmas Eve, she squirmed into my bed so Santa wouldn’t scare her should he look in on us.

Because Lori rejected every teen in the cavalcade of baby-sitters my parents desperately paraded through our home, I began baby-sitting at an early age. It was the only way my parents could transform her from a shrieking pint-sized tyrant, catapulting up and down on the couch by the window so they wouldn’t miss her furious, red face as they drove away, to a happy toddler, hand-in-hand with me, calmly waving good-bye.

By the time we were old enough to have kids over to play, we were a team. We could beat any group at just about any game we chose, from tag football to “capture the flag.” My father was proud that his girls could beat any boy in the neighborhood. The pattern continued when I enrolled in St. John’s School. My mother was an aide there before Lori was old enough to attend. She would accompany Mom, clinging to her until recess when she would emerge long enough to find me. One day as we played near my mother, Lori suddenly fled again to the safety of Mom’s skirts. I turned to see the meanest of the nuns bearing down on us. I brashly blocked her way with my seven-year-old self and said, pointing to Lori, “That’s my sister, and she’s afraid of you, so you better leave her alone!” Both the nun and Mom were dumbfounded, but Lori was delighted. I never got punished for that little incident.

In high school, our relationship changed. I had a few good friends, an obsession for books and a rebellious attitude. This was the seventies, and I was determined to question every authority in my life, every chance I got. Lori became a basketball star who was popular, bright and pleasantly conventional. We grew farther apart during college. I still attended her basketball games, but I didn’t think she really noticed. She disapproved of my vehement need for independence, and I was disconcerted by her disinterest in anything outside her world. How had we become so different?

I started a career as a writer in a city an hour away. Lori began teaching first-graders in our hometown. She visited my parents almost daily. If I stopped by on major holidays, family members had to hide their surprise. She married her college sweetheart when they graduated. I stayed single and spent the winters writing in Key West.

I missed my sister, but I mourned more for the relationship between the children we’d been than the adults we’d become. We were polite and pleasant, superficially courteous when we met, but there just didn’t seem to be any common ground. I was convinced she didn’t care about me, even remarking once to my mother, “If something happens to you and Dad, I bet we won’t even have holidays together.”

My mother looked devastated, and I realized the rift had hurt her as well. “I’d hope the two of you would do something about this before it comes to that,” she said. But I wasn’t sure exactly what, and I knew I wouldn’t like her answer if I asked. So I didn’t.

Yet the first thing I’d done after the doctor hung up was to call Lori.

Startled out of my memories, I grabbed the phone halfway through the first ring, but before I could speak, Lori’s calm voice came through.

“I know.”

“How?” I asked her, “How could you know?”

“I knew from your voice on the machine.”

She wasn’t crying. She’d become the strong sister. Surprised that she even recognized my voice on the machine, I sobbed out my fears. She listened. And listened. I finally blurted out, “You know, I could die.”

“No,” she answered stolidly. Then after a few moments, “You won’t die, Marci. You’re like God’s personal Internet, and he wants you here.” She went on to talk about the important things I was doing in my life, how many people I was touching.

I was stunned. How did she know anything about my life or work? How did she know I belonged to a parish and facilitated a discussion group? How did she know about my work with a nonprofit group that helped people with AIDS? How did she know that people read my work and depended upon me for honesty?

Probably the same way I knew about the important events in her life—Mom. Always hoping we would reconcile, she’d made sure each of us knew about the other’s achievements and frustrations. But as vital as they had been, Mom’s ministrations had not led to this conversation— and the many that followed.

Cancer had unlocked this door and already light was streaming through the crack.

It continued to shine. My regular doctor’s appointments have become Lori’s and my time. The doctor’s office is near her school, so I often stop by her classroom after the children have gone home and before my appointment. We sit in teeny-tiny first-grader chairs and talk about everything, not needing to focus on what’s coming for me in the next few hours. When I’ve been late and had to go directly to the medical offices, she’s been waiting outside my doctor’s suite. There, she hugs me softly because we both know that hard hugs after biopsies are not a good idea. She waits with me, though we are quieter than in her classroom. If I have a biopsy, when I walk out of the surgery room, somewhat unsteadily, she’s still there, having gathered my coat and book and other accoutrements. “Don’t forget this stuff,” she tells me, very much the organized teacher.

Am I grateful for cancer? No. Have I learned there are hidden treasures to be mined from its dark, scary depths? Yes. And that treasure has untold value when my sister puts her arm in mine and leads me to the car.

Marci Alborghetti

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