There in the cold hospital waiting room, we gathered together to watch my oldest sister die. As usual, I sat alone and apart. The only person I even liked in this motley group was currently in another room, heavily sedated on a ventilator. If my oldest sister had been sitting next to me, we would have been making snarky comments and laughing conspiratorially at the absurdity of it all. Who gets leukemia in their 40’s? And not just any garden-variety leukemia. My oldest sister managed to conjure up T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia. The bad kind.
I drank the dregs of my cold coffee.
She’d have preferred margaritas.
Hours crawled by. My father and mother withdrew into each other, talking in low voices, eyeing the rest of their adult children suspiciously, as if pondering which one of us had cursed the family. Although I knew my sister’s illness was not divinely punitive, I still felt guilty. My adult mind silently proffered my heartfelt compassion to my parents, as I was merely losing a sister, while they were losing their firstborn child. My adolescent mind brattily complained they’d prefer losing me over losing her.
She had been fearless. She shaved her head when the chemotherapy first threatened her beautiful hair. She wore tap dancing shoes to the radiation oncology department, clicking down the hallway to the nurses' cheers, holding out jazz hands with fingertips burned from the inside out.
Earlier, I had wandered into my oldest sister’s darkened ICU room, asking a nurse questions about endotracheal tubes. I asked about analgesic drugs, tidal volumes, alveolar overdistension, and whatever else I had just googled in the waiting room. He explained as much as he could to a novice. I retained nothing. When the nurse attempted to clarify oxygen concentrations and trigger variables, I became distracted by watching his patient’s face, wholly distorted and bloated due to the steroids. You would hate losing your magnificent cheekbones, I smiled ruefully. The nurse then mentioned something about lung compliance and the change of air volume over air pressure.
My oldest sister had been beloved in these hospital corridors, spending far too much time in them over the past year. When she wasn’t as sick, she would order pizzas for the nurses’ station and smuggle in chocolate Easter eggs. She unwrapped the eggs and put them in her bed pan to fool the doctors.
“What’s the most important number on this display?” I said, pointing to an indecipherable screen with beeping numbers, unknown abbreviations, and buzzing graphs.
“They’re all important,” he replied. I sat stupidly in silence and listened to the mechanical ventilator breathe for my oldest sister.
She had loved science, teaching her students to also love the wonder of the why. She kept complete order in her classroom, admonishing her students that there wasn’t enough time. There was too much to learn, too much to know, too much to question. No matter how sick she was, she always snuck out of her hospital room to watch the moonrise, out on the sidewalk with her IV pole, exiled with the smokers. She’d say, that’s a waxing gibbous moon. I’d say, I’ll take your word for it and would try to put a blanket around her shoulders.
“Is my sister dying?” I asked the nurse, wanting a simple answer, like a Roman emperor’s thumbs up or thumbs down. Just tell me something true.
“I don’t know,” the nurse continued to shuffle about the room, moving monitors and tubes, writing down things on a clipboard. I felt dismissed.
I meandered down to the hospital’s cafeteria before returning back to the waiting room. There, my father sat alone with two glazed doughnuts and a carton of chocolate milk. He seemed embarrassed that I had found him.
“Hi, Dad,” I smiled. I didn’t sit.
“Did you see your sister?” he asked, quietly relishing his treat.
“Yeah, I just wanted to grab something before heading back up.”
“Yeah, okay.” I turned to leave.
“You know, your mother and I are grateful for you trying to help your sister.”
“We all had a 1 in 4 chance of being a good match. I’m just glad we beat the odds, getting her into remission so we could try the transplant.” I actually sat down at my father’s table, surprising us both. “The neupogen shots made me feel a little like She-Hulk, but it was worth it to get my stem cell count up. I just—I just wish we had had better luck.”
“I had bet you’d be her match,” he said. “You two were always as thick as thieves.”
“We were very close. Still are.” I swallowed hard.
“You always kept an eye on her, through her divorces and her moving to new apartments every year or so.”
“I used to write her address in pencil in my address book,” I laughed.
“I never cared much for her husbands,” my father confided.
“Neither did she. I kept telling her she was marrying down the evolutionary scale.” We both laughed.
“Well, that last husband of hers was nearly blue-green algae then,” he chuckled, finishing his last doughnut. He got up and left without another word.
She always liked our father, the man who sat sentinel at the foot of her hospital bed for almost a year while my stem cells attempted to rebuild her immune system. With the precision of a scientist, she followed all the post-transplant medical directives. Until she didn’t, bored with it all. Unfortunately, her infantile immune system became overwhelmed with a respiratory virus, the common cold. As I sat blankly staring at a wall-mounted television in a hospital cafeteria, her lungs filled with fluid.
Avoiding the inevitable for a little while longer, I roamed the hallways, happening upon the hospital’s gift shop. I looked at the baskets of wilted flowers, some dyed in unnatural colors, tied up too tightly in cellophane. I hefted a variety of stuffed animals with bad puns emblazoned on their chests. Bee Well. Get Whale Soon. When I saw the refrigerator magnets and buttons, I bought one that read You Say Full Moon Like It’s A Bad Thing.
My oldest sister loved the moon, I would tell my children. In the meantime, I returned to the hospital’s waiting room, the family sitting more closely together while the possibility of any recovery grew further away.