A sister’s double whammy of cancer and infertility
“Growing up in an Italian family, we used our body to convey a message.”
– Sebastian Maniscalco
Through a sister’s eyes: the double whammy of cancer and infertility
It started with a pickle. A small kosher dill, perfectly curved to resemble a miniature mustache. I tucked it under my nose, inhaling the tang of garlic and vinegar, while my table mates roared with laughter. Not precisely an original joke, but we had been drinking and were generally high on family companionship and the relaxed ease which accompanies holiday vacations. Only one glass of wine for me though; I was still breastfeeding my first child who was currently being cuddled by her grandparents a floor below us.
Parenting had hit me strangely. I thought it might. As the baby of my own family, I was not a natural mother, not at first. Upon returning home from the hospital, I had walked around our house in a stupor of sleeplessness and confusion for a good two weeks, periodically humming the words to a Talking Heads song. And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Now the child was three months old, and I was finally comfortable enough with diapers and breastmilk and infant sounds of distress that the words slipped easily from my tongue, generously lubricated by the first glass of wine I’d allowed myself in a year.
“You know, I loved pregnancy. I’d totally surrogate for you if you ever needed it.” My sister sat kitty-corner across the table from me, and I watched as a discomfited look passed across her features.
Along with owning a home and getting married, having a child was one of the things I had managed to accomplish before my older sister. Which is not to say she was unaccomplished. While I was answering phones in the day and wiring outlets by night, my sister spent her days in academia and long nights singing in bands.
I was building a small private life of little importance to anyone but myself. My sister was building a career and a rather impressive Google presence. Our individual successes were both great in their own ways, but not even slightly comparable.
Generally, we were okay with this. Occasionally, we were not. In her maid of honor speech six years earlier, my sister had joked that having now married before her, if I ever had children before her, she’d have to kill me.
I had loved pregnancy, and it was true that my sister, older than me by eight years, still had no children of her own. Even so, my offer had not been meant to be taken seriously. Or perhaps it had, in the same way, that my sister had meant she would kill me if I had the audacity to have children before her.
Neither of us expecting a literal interpretation of our words, but knowing that there was, buried somewhere deep in the folds, a modicum of an inconvenient truth. Laughter as a passive-aggressive truth device. Haha, I’ll kill you. Hahaha, PROVE IT.
Of course, she hadn’t killed me. And I realized as I watched her momentarily struggle with how to answer this remark, that this was probably one of the more awkward things I’ve uttered. Even to a family member, which is saying something. It’s not every day that you insult someone’s lack of a child, infer that they might not be able to make their own and subsequently offer to do it for them, all in one wine-infused breath. My sister’s reply came slowly, graciously worded not to offend because older sisters forgive us these word vomit trespasses. “That’s really weird, Mags, and I think I’ll pass. But thanks.”
It would likely have been an awkward moment, remembered by exactly no one had my sister not discovered the cancer hidden in her body two years later. The doctors patiently explained that my sister’s 37-year-old uterus was not the ideal home for any child. Not due to its advanced age, but because it was tremendously busy growing a cancerous tumor.
My husband and I drove out to visit her that summer before she underwent surgery. A procedure which would likely remove the uninvited cancer, but most definitely remove her ability to grow a child inside of her body. The same week that we arrived, so did a box filled with sharp needles and glass vials of hormones designed to allow for the successful extraction of eggs. The square box sat unopened on the counter for the duration of our visit. However, even with the tape still sealed tightly to the cardboard edges, its presence was heavy.
Light dappled through the kitchen window as my sister and I sat together in front of the box one afternoon. Now a toddler, my daughter was still young enough where epic three-hour naps were possible, gifting us the undemanding peace required for sisterly confidences.
Ninety-four percent of people never use their eggs, you know. Some because they get pregnant naturally on their own. My sister did not have to explain that this was no longer a group that she belonged to. Some because eventually, they make their peace with not having children of their own. Others, because they simply don’t survive whatever it was that required the freezing of eggs in the first place. The process, she explained, was the critical part. Knowing that they had the option to use those eggs, those microscopic frozen nuggets of hope, regardless of whether or not they ever did, was enough.
When someone you love desperately is diagnosed with cancer, or with any life-altering illness, one of the very worst things is that there is jack all you can do about it. Perhaps you already know this. Oh, sure, you can set up meal chains or send them cards every week. Still, short of a crash course in oncology practicum, there is no gesture that you can perform, which would magically take the illness away. It is an act that is painfully out of reach.
There are certainly not many things a younger sister of little achievement can do for an older and much more accomplished sister, particularly one that lives several states away. But I did have one thing. A womb, eight years younger than hers, but already experienced in the ways of growing a child.
'When someone you love desperately is diagnosed with cancer, or with any life-altering illness, one of the very worst things is that there is jack all you can do about it.' Maggie WalcottCLICK TO TWEET
Growing up, my mom had told me often of the babies that had come between my sister and me that had not survived. Putting aside her sadness, she would smile while holding me close as she said, “I was just waiting for the right one.” Perhaps, I reasoned, this was the purpose. Perhaps eight years was precisely the right number to ensure that someday, the younger sibling would be able to grow life for the elder.
I never got the opportunity to act as a surrogate for my sister. Instead, three years after her first diagnosis, she was diagnosed with a completely new cancer. This one, significantly easier than the first to treat, but still enough to put her life on hold for a moment. Two years after that, that easy cancer metastasized to her liver, where it will continue to live for as long as she does. My sister is a very accomplished grower of cancer. Not precisely something you add to your Curriculum Vitae, but true nonetheless.
I still have a photo of the evening where I wore a pickle mustache, my eyes cast to the side, avoiding the camera poised close to my face. My children like to look at it, laughing at their mom’s silliness. Mom, why did you have a pickle UNDER YOUR NOSE? I read recently that dreaming of pickles can signify that the dreamer is trying to preserve something before it goes wrong in their waking life. Which really, is symbolic gold.
Taking an open vessel, enclosing it with the appropriately curative juices, and keeping something protected until you need it later. As for me, I’ve never dreamt of pickles; I have never awoken to the smell of sharp brine still wrapping its tendrils around my subconscious. Some dreams are not meant to be ours.
Maggie Walcott is a writer from Northern Michigan.