Someone I Love Has Cancer
Growing up like sisters
Published in ChicagoNow March 28, 2016
I have two younger brothers but have always wished I had a sister. That’s not really true. I do have one, but she happens to be my cousin Annette. And now she is battling lung cancer that has metastasized to her bones. This is so unfair.
Annette and I grew up like siblings. I’m pretty sure our families lived together from the time we were born. I don’t remember our tiny apartments upstairs from my grandparents right after World War II when housing was scarce. After the birth of my brother, I definitely remember moving to the upper floor of a two-story house, which we shared with Annette’s parents, my Aunt Mickey and Uncle Phil. My cousins Steve and Annette, who were close in age, respectively, to my brother and me, supposedly lived on the lower floor of this house. In reality, the four of us were together constantly, and our relationship was more like that of brothers and sisters than cousins.
We lived in the duplex on Cortland in Detroit until I turned seven. During this time, I remember an array of childhood experiences, and I can’t think of any that didn’t include Annette. We spent hours together digging a hole to China in the backyard that we called the “far distance.” We picked berries off a neighbor’s bush and were chased by a broom-swinging old man. We both ran up and down the block with the gang of neighborhood kids.
One memory that stands out was getting into trouble for creating a special potion of shaving cream mixed with every pill in Annette’s parents’ medicine cabinet. That was probably the only time my aunt was truly angry with me. Another time we partners-in-crime cut the beautiful curls off of a neighborhood girl. In our defense, she asked us to give her a haircut.
I was a school year ahead of my cousin, so when she started kindergarten, it was my job (good grief, I had just turned six) to walk her several blocks to and from school. Once, I couldn’t find her at the end of the day. I remember feeling terrified and crying, but Annette was fine. She had gone to Mickey’s candy store across from the school to buy candy buttons. Somehow, we found one another there and walked home sharing those buttons.
I was quiet in school and generally earned good grades. One time, however, Annette and I bought a box of stars and plastered them all over ourselves in the hope that our parents would think we were exceptional students. During all the time I lived in Detroit, I was very close to Annette, and when we moved from the city to our own suburban home, it was a very painful separation.
Eventually, Annette’s family moved to a suburb not very far from where I lived. Still, we had to drive to see one another, so our close relationship was harder to maintain. Like many sisters, we had very different personalities. I was a shy homebody who loved to play with dolls and help my mother with my new baby brother. Annette was an extrovert who made friends very easily. We were constantly being compared. My mother wanted me to be more outgoing, and my aunt wanted Annette to be more studious. We drifted apart as friends, but our sister-bond remained.
Life happened. We married, had children, and lived in different states. Sometimes years would pass without much contact. We would see one another occasionally, mostly at family events, and would talk on the phone from time to time, mostly when one of us needed emotional support. We mourned the deaths of our mothers, the true biological sisters. But regardless of the time apart, those first seven years were part of our DNA, and she will always be my soul sister.
Her cancer diagnosis really hurts. But much like the panic I felt when I couldn’t find her after kindergarten, I know Annette will handle her illness with resilience. She will go to the candy store and fortify herself with a strip of candy buttons, finding a way to make herself happy. She will make the best of a bad situation and live every day with as much joy as she can muster.
I will put my faith in her oncologist but I will put even more faith in the strength and grace Annette has shown throughout her life. Living with cancer is a huge challenge, but life has thrown her many tough curve balls and she keeps swinging. I hope she hits this one out of the park.
So for now, my dear Annette, let me give you the candy buttons to share this time, and let’s hold hands and travel this road together.