Saturday, March 15, 2008

I Miss My Sister

Jenny Wren, as she was called in our childhood, would have been 45 years old today.

Jenny was the eldest of us three. In this photo, she is a few months younger than Precious Daughter. (My middle sister, V, is on the left, and I'm the brat in the middle)

Jenny was funny and talented and smart. My mother always boasted of the fact that Jennifer could read at the age of three, proving her skill as she read “Give ‘Em Hell, Says Tate,” off a headline as mom read the morning paper.

She later started piano lessons, and when my mother first realized that Jenny would not only learn to play but stick with it (unlike her baby sister who was fired by the piano teacher for not practicing), she took Jennifer piano shopping. I remember maple-colored Wurlitzer coming to our house as a loaner for a few weeks to make sure Jenny liked it, and later it was replaced with the same model in ebony.

Before that piano arrived, Jenny practiced on a monstrous old player piano my parents had in our basement. It was huge and out of tune and Jenny practiced faithfully. I used to lurk in the basement, pretending to play with whatever toys were down there just so I could listen. She’d hit an off note, and I, the dorky, know-it-all, trying-to-help sibling would sing the correct one -- “La!” -- like that would do anything besides irritate the heck out of her. As annoying as I was, she never evicted me. Whether that was kindheartedness or parental edict I’ll never know.

Despite our near-constant sibling rivalry (I was a brat), I know Jenny defended the underdog as a rule. She was the girl who befriended the unpopular kid who got picked on by everyone else, and she was the one who refused to complete a classroom-wide punishment (“I will not talk in class.”) when she was not the one talking. When she got older, the "underdogs" were the mostly-forgotten elderly at the nursing home where she worked.

As Jenny ran out the door to wherever, she was often beleaguered with, “take your sister!” Jenny obliged, and, although I have no independent memory of this, I am told that while she didn’t completely ditch me, she’d tell me to stay put somewhere and I’d stay put while she and her friends whispered. As lousy as my memory is, I do remember her friends understanding her plight and being fairly welcoming despite my pain-in-the-butt characteristics. In particular, I remember an afternoon of playing softball with a bunch of Jenny’s friends and their siblings in a yet-to-be developed chunk of land behind our neighborhood. I couldn’t swing a bat to save my life (I am still pathetically non-athletic), and one of the friend’s brothers defending my lame-o attempt as a “check swing,” whatever that is.

While my mom worked, Jennifer was given the dubious honor of being “in charge.” Part of that included making sure she, V, and I completed our daily chores. The chores were nothing hideous, really. One of us did dishes, one wiped down the bathroom, and the third de-cluttered the living room. Lazy slacker that I was, I hated these tasks, and I balked and stalled until Jennifer was driven to frustration and sent me to my room, which, while it wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, I wasn’t doing housework either. Never mind the repercussions when Mom got home.

All through high school, Jenny had this perfectionist obsession with her hair. She’d spend ages in front of the mirror, blow-drying, hot-rolling, and touching up her curls with a curling iron. If it didn’t come out just right, she’d dunk her head over the tub and start over again.

She never left the house without make-up or a hair out of place. More amazing is that leaving was at all possible. The fashion at that time was to wear your jeans as tight as they could go, and I remember Jenny laying on her bed, sucking in her already-flat stomach, and inching up the zipper of her jeans with the aid of the latch hook that came with one of those do-it-yourself rug kits. How she could stand up, let alone walk, amazed me.

By the time Jenny got her driver’s license, we entered a new era of conflict. She had already graduated high school by the time I started, but mom designated Jenny as my chauffer of sorts when it came to trucking my butt to and from band practice, choir performances, school plays, and such. Mom wouldn’t let me get a license when I was old enough, and Jenny often grouched, “Why can’t you ride with one of your friends?” My closest friend in band lived several miles in the wrong direction, a common plight when you live on the absolute edge of the school district. Ditto for choir. This may seem like a picky gripe from her, considering that the car was bought, paid for, and insured by mom, but in reality she had a legitimate gripe. Band camp started in August, which meant Jenny spent four nights a week shuttling my butt to and from the school with only occasional relief from my stepfather. From September through October-ish, it dwindled to two nights, but other stuff started up. Still a pain.

Jenny was a shoe hound. Her biggest shoe mistake clearly involved getting a job at Fayva, where she spent her paychecks on more and more shoes. It wasn’t enough to get one pair in a cute, new style; she bought them in every color. Long after Fayva was gone, her addiction remained. Her closet was positively stuffed with boxes of shoes, each box labeled with the style and color so she could find what she wanted.

From the time Jenny was little, she wanted to be a nurse. As a young kid, she devoured every Cherry Ames novel my mother brought home in a box (along with bunches of Nancy Drew and Dana Girls mysteries). She made her first attempt immediately after high school to her prerequisites for nursing school. After her third attempt and failure to pass Sociology, she gave up and tried her hand at beauty school instead. She wasn’t happy with that either (but she gained enough skill to keep my hair looking nice!) and got a job as a bank teller. She put up with that for a few years, but seeing those nurses depositing their paychecks tore at her and she gave nursing school another go. During nursing school, she worked at a local nursing home, and in her spare time she'd put her beauty-school training to work thrilling the old ladies by fixing their hair.

When she graduated, she started working in a large city hospital. I believe she later wanted to go into geriatric nursing, but she never got the chance.

Around the time of her graduation, our relationship began to change. We had some difficult conflicts here and there, but on the whole we were nearly adults and starting to get along.

In April of 1989, Jenny was diagnosed with cervical cancer. On the surface, cervical cancer is highly treatable and curable, but Jenny's wasn't discovered until the tumor was a 6 cm whopper, and biopsy revealed a nasty, aggressive cell type.

She underwent radiation therapy, and in the fall of 1989, things were looking really good. Her tumor was gone, and a number of tests looked positive, but by December of that year, she developed an unexplained low-grade fever, and we learned that her cancer had metastasized and grew to a large-sized tumor her liver. Radiation treatments were attempted on the liver, and by then she had lesions on her kidneys, spine, and heart.

Jenny's next option was chemotherapy, but she knew (we all knew) that the chemo wasn't a curative measure, and she opted to skip the chemo. Some may think that was a stupid decision, but she knew what her outcome would be, and she didn't want to spend her last months sickened and tired from chemo.

I can't adequately describe the awfulness of her 27th birthday in 1990. There she was, bravely "celebrating" her last birthday, pretending she'd actually get to use the gifts she opened. It was one of the most horrible and hopeless days of my life, and it must have been so much harder for her. I can't imagine what it did to my mother.

She spiraled downward very quickly after that, and on April 1, 1990, my sister was gone, three weeks shy of making the one-year mark from her diagnosis.

I think about her and miss her every day. Every time I look at my children, I wonder what her life would be like. I wonder what she'd think of them. Most of all, I wonder what our relationship would be like today. As I already mentioned, we were improving in baby steps after she finished school, and the stress of her illness certainly made improving our relationship a high priority. By the time she died, it was rather good, and I am so utterly thankful for that. Greedy I am, and I ache for more. My happiest and most reluctant mornings are those when I rise out of dreams of my sister.

I suspect she disliked this picture. It isn't one of the best (she is not missing a tooth), but it shows her pretty blue eyes. I have many others that are much better, but my photos are a chaotic jumble, and I had to work quickly before my children discovered my photo stash and revisited it when I wasn't looking. Nothing is sacred or personal with a six-year-old and a four-year-old in the house. I can't even close the bathroom door without them hounding me from the other side the minute they hear it click shut.

And now? Today we have a vaccine against the virus that caused my sister's cancer. When I think of it I am in awe. Something as simple as a vaccine! I wonder what Jenny and Mom would think of that.


Anonymous said...

Oh sweet memories...the comfort they bring...the sadness that lurkes in the background

Karen Deborah said...

I'm sorry. I lost a brother and my mom died of cancer. Your sister may not have even lived a year WITH the chemo. It's a sad deal. I've worked in oncology and hospice and never do get "used to it". Each person has to make their own choices about treatment. We also have choices to make about faith. I know that I will see my family again. It was my mom's sickness that made her turn to Jesus Christ; and that was a testimony to us. None of can explain suffering we can just offer an understanding hug. It just plain hurts sometimes.