This was hard to write. I still have doubts about sharing this because in some ways it feels so fresh even though it has been 17 years. I have never talked about it, not outside of a high school therapist (which is a story for another time).
In June of 2005, I lost my cousin who was my dear friend and like a sister to me.
It isn’t that I was unaware it was a possibility she would lose her four year fight against cancer. She was only 22. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I wasn't ready to watch someone so close to me change and decline in that way. It wasn't fair. She had a daughter. She couldn't leave us without her light.
I think it is fairly rare nowadays to find someone who has not been affected by cancer. This was my first close, personal experience with it. Not to sound callous, but cancer had always seemed to me like a far away thing. A malady that struck down those more at the end of their life journey. I was also an idiot.
It started with a casual conversation about headaches over calculus homework. She indicated they were really frequent and were at the base of her skull. The headaches got bad enough that she went to the doctor. A brain tumor. A stupid, fucking brain tumor.
Then came the chemo appointments. Since having her daughter, she was living at my aunt's house, only ten minutes away from my childhood home. I would get home from school and would take over babysitting duties from my Mom until my cousin would get back from her treatment. The reason for babysitting wasn't ideal (obviously) but I will always cherish those memories seeing her daughter call Elmo on her toy phone.
The radiation started to take a toll. My cousin, always very skinny seemed to start to waste away before my eyes - hip bones jutting out prominently as she walked on shaky legs with the help of a walker. The steroids made her face bloat. I remember her telling me she hated seeing her face that way and she would shy away from photos. Her hair, the color of wheat was always fine, but it got stringy and matted. She started wearing bucket hats.
All the while I was in denial. She was going to get better. She was such a warrior - strong, upbeat, and still wearing a smile on her face. A complaint was rare. It was an amazing gift to see her resilience and defiance. It never resided in my mind that she may not beat cancer.
For a bit, she was getting better. Until she wasn't. The tumors had spread to the spine.
Time flew by and yet was agonizingly slow. Towards the end, she was bedridden. Not really conscious. Barely moving. I sat at her bedside with my Mom, my sister, my Aunt - telling funny stories and memories - Enya's Greatest Hits playing in the background.
One afternoon, the house phone rang. It was my aunt to tell us it was time. I was full of dread. I told my Mom and she went over right away with my sister. I was too scared to go. My throat dry and anxiety high, I couldn't sit still but couldn't focus on anything.
I still beat myself up for being such a chicken shit. I should have been there. Why didn't I go? My mind is blank trying to recall what was going through my mind. I only feel my physical reaction as a phantom memory - as real as if it was happening now. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't go. It is still shameful for me. I regret not being able to say goodbye and squeeze her hand one more time.
They made in announcement over the PA system in homeroom. She was young enough that many at the high school knew her. My classmates turned and stared at me. The principal had mentioned me and my sister's names because we were family. I wanted to disappear through a hole in the floor.
The viewing and funeral were awful. I can only imagine what it was like for her siblings...for her parents. I tried to focus on other things. I blinked back tears and swallowed it down. I still can't listen to Amazing Grace without crying. When we were leaving the funeral parlor after the viewing, my sister refused to go. She went back to the casket and crumbled in front of it, sobbing. I'll never forget that moment. I stood in the doorway awkwardly as my sister fell to pieces; incapable of comforting her…yet another moment of shame for me.
Something cracked in all of us when we lost her. I didn't understand at the time just how it changed me. I don't know if I will ever fully understand my feelings - the pervasive numbness that hang heavy on the soul and mind. I know I wasn't the same. I was a shell at times and pushed people away - a pattern that continues still to this day. Fuck Cancer. It took one of the best.