Carol Jane Remsburg
My Sister My Hero
When I was growing up as the youngest of three daughters, life was pretty normal in the 60's. We had a Mom and a Dad and what they said went around the house and the bickering among we siblings was pretty well quashed quickly once it reached our mother's ears. However our growing up years weren't always idyllic. When my oldest sister was twelve, she came down with cancer. The label on her medical labs was a neuro blastoma.
Neuro Blastoma is often a cancer that strikes children from the womb up until age three. For her to contract it at twelve was very rare. To say the prognosis for her survival was minimal, was being kind. In 1969 none had survived yet. The best doctors could hope for would leave my sister Melody in a vegetative state—if she did actually live.
Melody became a test case. She had at least four core doctors dedicated to her care; much the health insurance my dad had on the family didn't cover. He worked three jobs to supplement the rest, and parts of it I think the doctors simply wrote off; but I'm getting ahead of myself. This actually began when Melly was an infant and had an enlarged thymus gland. As per the norm at the times, they treated her with radiation. It reduced the thymus gland and we were back to being a family…until the screams began.
I'll never, ever forget, the screams and the moans at night that woke up the house. Melly was whisked away to the doctor's office. Xrays were taken and nothing found. Mom demanded more, and got them. Finally a lab tech detected a slight outline along the outer edge of the x-ray. The tumor was so large it had filled the screen.
As her younger sisters, Betsy and I didn't quite get it at first, other than bossy Melody was sick, really sick. Me, being the youngest, thought it was just another bid for attention and she was getting it. Melly was the smartest, the tallest, the first born, and the one Mom loved best. And, Melly also got away with being mean to me the most. Sometimes I just hated her.
Jealousy? Yes, I was always jealous of Melody. She lived the charmed life. She knew more, did more, and had all the answers and brought home the straight-A's in school. Betsy was the popular and athletic one. That sure didn't leave me many options to excel on in any different venues. Even the teachers I couldn't appease. So, I became the whiny little sister—and I became really good at it too. I had to excel at something.
It was the day that Daddy came home from work and sat down on the couch thinking himself alone. Mom and Melody were at the hospital. Daddy began to cry. His face in his hands, he wept and whispered a litany, "She's going to die, they said she's going to die…"
I don't think I've ever been that scared before or since. I did what any other little kid would do, I went straight to my dad and hugged him and tried to comfort him as best I could. I kept telling him that Mom wouldn't let anything happen to Melody, and that Melody was too mean to die.
Through his tears, there was a muffled, choking laughter, as only a parent can laugh at a child. My unknowing innocence and orneriness and faith in my mother's capabilities brought humor into the moment. Daddy's tears dried up and he went to the kitchen to make dinner. The scary moment passed, but one I never forgot. I learned to become watchful from then on.
Melody did heal. It was many long months after surgery and cobalt treatments (if I said that right, I could be wrong, but that's my memory of it). Melly went bald, and yellow and vomited all the time. Yeah, and she was in a bad mood all the time and mean. We weren't allowed to tease her or pick on her or treat her like normal, until she just about went ballistic because she couldn't pick on us. Then that passed—thankfully, and she was back to her old self—still bossy and ornery.
Years passed and Melly remained a case study and had additional treatments for years and the cancer remained gone. She grew up, always smart, always wickedly witty with a tongue that could slay you where you stood and cut you to pieces if she felt like it. (I always envied that ability, I never accomplished it—another point I'm lacking in, a ready wit) She married at eighteen, divorced, remarried, got better jobs, had a beautiful daughter, and then her husband died. Then our parents died.
Melly went it alone. By then she was living 1500 miles from home and far away from any of her remaining family. She found a good job, raised her daughter, and nearly some ten years later encountered a man worthy of being her husband. Together they have led an active life, and loved every minute of it. A few years back, a pap smear came back bad. Without missing a beat, she had further tests done and the news wasn't good. She faced that procedure with all sails set full. It never stopped her and she kept right on going.
Even a few years ago when she was out on a little island bike riding and a big truck hit her, and luckily didn't kill her. She gimped around for two months just glad to be alive and poo-pooed the entire incident. Again, she didn't tell me about it until much later.
And her life moved on.
Her daughter, now in college, is amazing. She's so like Melly. The daughter, beautiful, with a kind heart, a razor wit, and the will to excel is going places we only dreamed about as kids. Melly is so happy and proud of her.
Then came yesterday. The phone rang. It was Melody, all chipper and perky. Her first words were, "are you sitting down? Everything is really okay…"
I'm glad I was already sitting down. She told me that she'd come home on Tuesday from the hospital, and that she'd had a double mastectomy along with reconstructive surgery and that with the onset of menopause she'd developed invasive lobular breast cancer. She said the doctors thought it was just another trigger from the initial cancer from the radiation of her thymus gland as and infant and the neuro blastoma that hit at puberty.
Further, she said that she had waited to call until she had the all clear from the scans showing her cancer-free to let us know. Chemo is still a must and she's already purchased her wig. She said the reason she didn't call was because she didn't want us to worry being 1500 miles away. To be truthful, she probably wouldn't have said a single word to worry her sisters but she wanted to remind us that we are at risk, with our maternal grandmother and aunt having also had breast cancer. She wanted to ensure that we got ultra-sounds rather than regular mammograms because the invasive lobular cancer isn't detected with a regular mammogram.
When Melly informed me of all this information, she was perky, chipper, and really didn't want to make this particular call to me. I knew it, I heard it, and I literally bit my fingers. She didn't want me to cry. This was good news after all, wasn't it? She didn't want me to cry and I didn't want her to hear me trying really hard not to cry. My own fourteen year-old daughter was buzzing about giving me looks and giving me the silent, "What's going on…" routine. I hate that. However, I did keep my composure relatively intact much to Melly's relief. My instructions were to inform our middle sister as Melly wasn't quite up to that task. She said that calling Betsy would make her cry and she had no intentions of crying. That I understood perfectly well. Melly hates crying. I hate crying too. It hurts too much.
Me, I hid behind my little door in my tiny little "office" area (consider that a joke would ya…it's 9' x 6' and filled with a desk and cabinets and boxes and such that if you open the door you hit my chair and risk maiming me for life). I hid there and bit both my index fingers to keep my mouth from running like a sieve. The pain of those bites actually kept back most of the tears. Holding your breath works wonders in such situations.
After many reassurances that all was indeed well at the moment, I let my sister off the phone. I had family arriving to make dinner for and I went ahead and did that. Keeping busy and keeping in motion stays the shock, the visceral emotions from coming to the fore. Fear for my sister was the first, and then a slow burning, building anger came second.
It's not fair!
No, it's not fair. It's a childish rant, a childish reaction, and a childish horror. Life should be fair, but it isn't. It never has been nor will it be. Melly spent her time worrying about others as not to worry them, so she kept silent. Do I want to wring her skinny little neck for not telling me sooner? Yes I do, but she knows that already.
How do I let her know that her trials have made her stronger than anyone I know? How do I let her know that I love her beyond knowing? How do I let her know she is my hero? How do I let her know she has the strength I am so lacking in? That she has faced with grace and strength all I know I could not?
Melly is a champion; unsurpassed by any other human being living—or dead. She is a living tribute to the will to live and survive. Nay, not just survive, but to excel, to focus on living and to shun the fears and trauma of mortality. Ah, the best compliment I can give her, is you have now exceeded Mom. Melody is dedicated to living the way she wants and nothing, no little or big cancer, will interfere. Knowing Melly, she'd talk it to death if she didn't have a surgeon at the ready.
Melly, you are my sister, but you are also my hero, and the hero to so many others. I thank the day you were born and every day you draw breath. I love you honey, don't you ever forget it.