by Valarie Kinney
Often, people celebrate anniversaries with dinner out, champagne, maybe a dozen roses.
Today I am trudging through a different sort of anniversary, and it’s hard.
Early in the spring three years ago, my sister complained of shoulder pain. It was in her shoulder blade, she said. Kept her up at night. She went to our doctor, who thought it likely my sister had been a waitress too long. “You’re pushing fifty, Charlotte,” she said, “you’ve been doing this over thirty years. You might need to consider a job change.” But the pain continued and the anti-inflammatories didn’t help, so my sister went back a week or so later. The doctor ordered an x-ray. The radiologist noted something, some sort of mass, in her left lung. Suddenly, there was a flurry of appointments, and in a very short time, we knew there was a tumor in her lung, the size of a grapefruit. It had already eaten through three ribs and part of her spine.
It was inoperable, and it was cancerous.
We found out she had cancer in early May. The day of my oldest daughter’s Junior prom.
She started treatment immediately, but it was too late. Problem after problem arose, she became weaker and weaker, and by the middle of July, she asked to be brought home to our mother’s house. The house we all grew up in. Hospice was called in. We all moved in for the duration: her kids, my husband and I, our four kids, my brother and his family, our dogs, my sister’s dogs.
In the darkness of the early morning on July 27th, 2013, my only sister slipped away from us.
I remember it every year, of course, and am torn between somehow commemorating the day and letting it slide by in a haze of frantic activity. I want it to get over with so I’m not dreading it, but I also want to pause and remember her, ask other people to remember her. She deserves to be remembered.
Songs on the radio hit me out of nowhere. The other night I had gone out to buy a gallon of milk, and on the way home Green Day’s “Good Riddance” came on and I started bawling so hard I thought I would have to pull off the road.
This year is a little different.
Last week, I went for a mammogram. I’m “that age” now. I went for the first time last year, and it was clear. This year, I had a choice. I could go again this year, and providing it looked fine, skip next year. Or I could skip this year, and go a year from now. It was up to me. I talked with my doctor at my physical a few weeks ago, and though she didn’t feel anything amiss on exam, we decided I would go this year, and then if all was clear, I’d have the choice next year to skip if I wanted.
She is the same family physician my sister had. Since my sister got sick, she checks me for lumps of any kind more often. Palpates my lymph nodes much longer than she did before I had this black mark in my family history. Let’s err on the safe side, she said.
So I went. Last Thursday. The tech had me wait while she checked my films, and pronounced them good.
Two days ago, the office called back. They need me to come in for an immediate appointment, they said. Call back as soon as possible.
Of course I did. I’m going back today. They won’t tell me why over the phone.
My mind is going all sorts of different directions at the moment. I understand that most likely they just need more imaging for some reason. Or there is some calcium deposit or something innocuous that needs to be ruled out.
But anxiety and logic don’t often go hand in hand, so mostly what I keep thinking is, I don’t want to tell my mother that another one of her kids has cancer.
I can’t do it.
I’m also thinking, What sort of cruel twist of fate makes me go for this kind of thing on the anniversary of my sister’s death from cancer?
It feels unfair.
I want to wind this up by saying something pithy, some bit of life advice that would put everything into a neat little box you can use to guard against bad things. Something like, Don’t smoke cigarettes, kids! Or, Make sure you go for your yearly mammogram!
But I can’t. Because sometimes you do everything “right” and bad things still happen.
Sometimes you eat your vegetables and ride your bike and try to stay healthy but you still get called back on mammograms.
Sometimes you listen to all the right stations but Green Day still shows up on the radio.
Sometimes you blink the tears away but they still keep coming.
Valarie Kinney is a writer, fiber artist and Renaissance Festival junkie with a wicked caffeine addiction. She resides in Michigan with her husband, four children, and two insane little dogs. She is the author of Heckled, Slither and Just Hold On, as well as the short stories Copper and Ailith in the KAPOW! anthologies by 7DS Books. Narrator for Dragons of Faith.