Years ago, my youngest sister, Amy, died of leukemia. She fought a good fight to ultimately succumb to it after only 10 months. She was brave and hilarious to the end, even in the face of some horrible, painful, very very scary stuff. There are five of us, no boys, just a small riot of former Freeburg girls and each of us tried our best to help her. We all know or have known someone who has or had cancer; it is an unwelcome familiarity. It is all too common, unimaginable except when it is happening to you. When it is you, that is what makes the surreal, real… this is not my beautiful life.
During her fight with cancer, she had toxic chemicals being pumped into her body on a daily basis, her system reacting by giving her sores in her mouth, serious fevers, whole body racking chills that literally rattled her teeth, and so much more that I have no insight to as I was only on the sidelines. Sometimes those sidelines were states away, so in reality I know next to nothing. In this instance, to add insult to well, uh disease she lost her hair. Being bald for a guy is tough for a woman it is devastating. Amy had a long thick mane of blonde hair; the rest of us got some serious recessive hair gene, its wispy, baby fine, bird downy, crap hair. One sister is so artful in managing her tresses that they almost look solid; I once referred to them as a Vegas act because the illusion is just that good.
When it came time for our first round of visits and subsequent presents, we brainstormed but for the most part went with things she had mentioned. Chris, the Vegas act coiffure, went with a whole bag of beauty: accoutrements for pedicures, body and face moisturizers, tweezers and a well-received electric razor. It seems that when your hair falls out during chemo it mostly all does, except the stuff you spend your adult life trying to remove. Its things like this that makes me believe the universe is absurd. Another sister, Susan, brought her a whole entire set of expensive mineral based make-up complete with a video. Amy watched it at least a half dozen times as there was a lot of blending, tapping and swirling to get on the first go around. She loved her gifts and each I believe helped make her feel more normal and whole. When she finally lost all of her hair she put out the word that she wanted great head gear, funny, pretty, the whole gambit of hats. The wig option was also in the works, they had come in a variety of hues from fire engine red, to California blonde with black roots, so maybe the latter is more trashy California blonde. Amy was blonde naturally then helped it along to strikingly streaky golden, so a good wig fit was difficult.
Amy was an eighth grade English teacher; she loved teaching, loved the kids and they in return loved her. One of the things she told friends and family was that she wanted an aviator helmet. The leather fly caps like snoopy wears on scrimmages with the Red Barron. She thought it would be great fun to teach in and the kids would get a kick out of it. I told her I would find her one no problem. A few searches via the internet and I had a black leather aviator cap ordered. I believed a fashion statement such as this required goggles, so I ordered a pair of them as well. It turned out that along with the purchase of her fly boy cap came a 12-15-page biography of a Vietnam veteran. So, she was able to toss out his memories as her own at such events as cocktail parties and the flushing of her chest pump by the nurses.
My sisters choose presents that Amy really needed, that had value in helping her pull back in some of her essence, her sense of Amyness, the bits that the chemo eroded. My gift to her was something preposterous, something she wanted not needed. I sent some whimsy, a laugh, and a good story. In the end it hit the mark which is all I cared about.
She went home after that round of chemo and we all waited for the results of a blood test to see which one of us would win the lottery for an almost all expense paid weeks’ vacation in a Tampa hospital for a stem cell transplant and a chance to be part of her cure. During that week she and I had a long chat about important things, pie and candy in particular. There is only so much white blood cell, platelets and infection talk you can have before one winds up in candyland. After a very long and involved conversation about our love of candy and concurring on the proper way to eat jujuy fruits in a theater, we agreed these advanced methods are not always common knowledge but best practices in jujuy eating. The procedure is you need to hold them up to the screen so you can see what color you are eating. Amy did this so she ate no black jujies, she hates black licorice. Not me, I love it and benefited that nobody in our house liked black licorice but me, so I got all the black jellybeans and didn’t have to trade for them. That left me fat and happy literally. For me, the checking of jujuy color is that I don’t like to repeat flavors of my jujies when I can help it, it messes up a fine candy experience. After this discourse I decided to send her an 8lb bag of jujuy fruits. My note accompanying the gift expressed concern for her teeth, as both she and I need to hold the jujies in our hands for a minute or two to soften them up before eating them. This is to try to prevent the removal of fillings, cracked or damaged teeth and uh, the strong solidly entrenched teeth as well. Let’s face it jujuy is some strong stuff, softened it just leaves you hours of fine gummy goodness stuck to your enamel but in straight from the box hardness you are looking like a jack-o-lantern in no time.
My gift of the jujuy was received well. Amy left a message on my answering machine saying it was more like a 20lb bag of candy. Seeing how they are small and light little suckers it must have been an unwieldy mass of nuggetized hardened corn syrup. She went on to say that she had squealed like a four-year-old when it had arrived. I can think of no better review of a gift than that. The bag it seems was sitting on the couch in an upright position as it was the size and weight of a toddler. She finished her message saying she was debating whether to dress it. I never heard If she did, as she was back in the hospital within a week or two for the next set of chemo.
Amy loved her presents, they made her laugh and I hope to feel loved, which she is. I am not very good at saying such things and hoped my gestures, such as aviator helmets, giant bags of candy, and dopy messages on her cell phone, conveyed that. I don’t think too many people say I love you, and when they do I fear most don’t really mean it, in particular when it is said easily. Perhaps that is just my prejudice or Samsonite cluttering reality. I think that when someone of few words, especially in the arena of feelings, says they love you, that that is a small miracle.
In the face of the unimaginable, of disease, and questions of mortality things like whimsy, laughter and quiet love do alright. Well, that and you can never underestimate the power of candy.
Cheers – Kyra
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