“celebrate, right now”

Michele and me
My “Seester” Michele and me on my first birthday, May 1967, in Tucson, Ariz. Still some years before she and my other sister, Marlyn, abandoned a delightful, seemingly unabandonable 7-year-old me in a park in San Antonio, Texas, so they could go talk to some teenage boys, and I could get bit by a big black-and-white jumping spider. Not that I’m still nursing the wretched psychological wounds of that horrifying incident or anything …

I’ve written a half-dozen intros to this 2005 newspaper column, and promptly scrapped each one. Because all any of them managed to do was get in the way. So I’m stepping aside here, and letting this piece simply speak for itself instead.

Except for this: My sister Michele is the best people in the world, and I love this world that much better with her in it.

Originally published Oct. 24, 2005, in The Daily Reflector | © 2005 Cox News Service, Inc.

Celebrate, right now

What I am about to share is deeply personal. Not so much about me, but about someone I care about.

I do not take this task lightly. She is so very private. This couldn’t be less so.

I want to introduce you to one of my two remarkable sisters, Michele.

When my life went off the rails last year following the collapse of my marriage, Michele took me in. In fact, everyone in my family rallied around me, as we all hope our families would. But with Michele, it was different.

She gave me a home, warm and welcoming. She was kind, but promptly blew out the candles on any budding pity party. When I was too long absent, she found excuses to check on me. She helped me financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, in every way that matters.

And yet Michele was dealing then with something no one should ever have to face. Breast cancer, the very worst form. And while the ravenous tumor increasingly would not be denied, Michele refused – refused – to let it define her. She would not give it that power.

Yet the thing racked her. She wouldn’t complain, but increasingly, the pain never left her eyes. Sleep grew elusive. Her slight weight grew ever slighter. And yet.

And yet every day, she found some way to be there for her teenage son, and for me, and for her partner, who suffered in quiet agony to see all of this happen.

I do not believe I will ever know anyone stronger than my sister Michele.

Upon diagnosis, she refused, point blank, to undergo chemotherapy: It made no sense to her to poison her body to try to poison the tumor. And we respected her decision, all the while wringing hands at the loss of this most accepted treatment option.

Michele exhaustively researched other ways, unconventional ones, to combat the cancer. Every day, she forced down a literal handful of herbal supplements meant to bolster her immune system. She drank ghastly looking plant extracts. She underwent a treatment program out West that I can’t begin to explain.

Still, the tumor did what tumors do. And because this was inflammatory breast cancer, it didn’t just grow in bulk, like a swelling rock. It grew out in different directions, like branches, or roots. A hideous, insatiable thing.

Ultimately, Michele had to undergo surgery, a mastectomy, the complete removal of one breast. And yet.

And yet there was no evidence this ravenous mass had managed to spread anywhere else. Her surgeon was thrilled, but shocked.

I ended up being the one to drive her home after her mastectomy (it’s outpatient, believe it or not). And I realized for the very first time as I was being given instructions on post-surgical care, in case Michele was unable to carry them out herself (she was, and she did), that this person whom I have idolized my whole life could actually be frail, and could vanish from me.

Within days, Michele was pushing herself back into the world, no doubt too soon. But life was happening, and she would be in it.

When I asked for her blessing to write about her, she gave it, making but one request: “I’d prefer not to be referred to as a “breast cancer survivor,’“ she wrote me. “I can’t stand being defined in terms of a single experience.”

I’ve never known anyone so singularly unique as my sister Michele. Many of us talk about living life on our own terms; she does it. How she dealt with cancer exemplifies that. But so do so many other things about her, right now.

And yet when I’m confronted with the words “breast cancer,” I’m immediately thrown backward.

What if things had gone differently? What if that most horrible of all what ifs?

No one who cares for Michele will ever be able to quite let that feeling go.

So I need no reminder that it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Every day I am aware.

Most of us will be touched by breast cancer in some way. This is a fact. And I think now of all the beloved women in my life: Statistics decree that at least one more among them will one day draw this card for the first time, or again, no matter how much I wish or pray or rail at the heavens. No matter what.

Michele’s surgeon, Beth, a friend, died earlier this year. A heart attack, while being treated for breast cancer. A grossly untimely end.

Endings, beginnings – as a writer, these things I get too well. Yet I don’t know how to end this right now.

Every day, we get up, and we hope for ourselves, and for our own. But we never know, do we? The trick is turning that hope in an unknowable future full of countless endings and beginnings into a celebration of the lives we cherish, right now.

But how?

I can offer only this: I love you, Michele. Right now.

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