The Heat, The Rain, and The Long Road Home.

It’s been just over a year since that day last summer.

That whole week was hot, the kind of sticky heat that lingers on your skin
even after you’ve gotten out of it. We’d walk outside for a bit, then come
back in and drink water bottle after water bottle. Beyond the heat, the
water helped replenish the tears we’d lost and fill our empty bellies. None
of us had been able to eat.

Ever cried in an unbearable heat? It’s strange. Somehow the sun licks away
the saltiness before it ever reaches your mouth.

I’d made my husband take us to the store to buy new dress clothes. We
smiled or barely shook our heads as our daughters twirled from the fitting
rooms in summer dresses, as if we were choosing something to buy for a
school dance instead of a funeral.

She isn’t even gone yet. But she will be. And when it happens, I don’t
  want to have to think. I want everything to be ready.

At the house, the motions of everyday chores took on an overly loud
quality. Mom spent hours each day making my sister’s favorite foods. Mashed
potatoes. Macaroni salad. Summer cake with fruit and vanilla pudding.

My sister couldn’t eat much, really. End stage cancer does that to a
person. But that’s what mothers do, you know? They feed their children.

There were minutes, sometimes hours, when her lucidity left us vying for
attention, and we’d take reluctant turns talking with her or holding her
hand. None of us wanted to lose a moment of recognition or shared smiles,
but there were what, eighteen of us? At least. We had to be fair.

Outside, the sky was perfect summer blue, the clouds fat and white.

Inside, my sister was sweating, though her skin was cold.

We’d been at Mom’s for five days. Friday, my sister was awake and somewhat
jovial, joking with my daughters about trashy TV shows. A calm vibe hung in
the air. We could’ve remained in that limbo forever, I think. Cautious but

We left for just a little while, running necessary errands. We weren’t far
or gone long, but a heavy sickness sat in my gut. “We have to go back,” I
urged my husband. “Something’s wrong. I feel it.”

The temperature was rising. Heat distorted the air, the way it does when
you look through campfire smoke and everything seems just a little off.

I sat with my sister. She was sleeping, but I held her hand. Through the
window, I saw shadows of summers past: Wet drops from the sprinkler.
Melting popsicles and red rings around our lips. Splashing in the clear
blue water of the pool.

It was the part of the night when one day quietly melds into the next. I’d
dozed off on the couch, and my husband was shaking my shoulder. Wake up.
  It’s happening.

Her breathing was short and shallow, with long, frightening pauses in

My nephew rubbed her arm and sang, “Rock me Mama, like a wagon wheel….”

My daughter rushed from the room, and came back carrying my sister’s two small dogs, arranging them on the
bed near her feet.

My mother said, over and over, “I love you. I love you.”

My little boy rubbed circles on my back and said, “Keep breathing, Mama.
In your nose and out your mouth. We’ll be okay if we just keep breathing.”

Wailing stuttered in my ears, prickling my skin.

We fell asleep on the living room floor after it was over, because of course it had all been just a

When we woke, the heat wave had broken.

Then came the summer rain.



Today makes eight months and 16 days since you left us, and I did something today I never expected to do.

I cut my own hair.

I had decided to just let it grow and never cut it again, or at least not for a long, long time.

I guess I thought it would be some act of remembrance; a sign of my mourning, like in the old days when the grieving wore black for a year.

Nobody else but you has cut my hair since I was fifteen, and my friends and I would come up to the cosmetology school for manicures and cut-n-colors.

I was so proud of you, watching my big sister learn these new skills; watching you laugh with your fellow students while my friends and I got pampered at discounted prices.

You graduated at the top of your class the same year I got married.

You graduated at the top of your class while working full-time, raising five kids as a single mom.

You were my hero.

And I remember the way your hands felt in my hair, quick and confident, as you brushed and separated and snip snip snipped at the curly mess on my head.

As you were brushing and snipping, we’d talk about the kids: yours and mine and activities and sports they were involved in and awards they’d won and recent report cards and who the kids were dating now and which kids were learning to drive.

And usually my little guy would run into the kitchen and say something that made you crack up laughing, and you’d have to stop for a minute to sit down or take a sip of your Sunkist or put your hands on your knees when you laughed so hard you started to cough.

You’d always say, “He’s so funny! My little booger-butt.”

Donovan’s first baby haircut was done in your old kitchen, and Brennan’s first one was in mine.

You trimmed the girls’ hair for the first time at my old house, just before they each started kindergarten.

Remember how Brennan would cry and say the tiny bits of hair that fell down his neck burned his skin, and we would need someone to sit with him and feed him fruit snacks until the haircut was over, and then we’d pick him up and run with him to the bathtub and stick his screaming, squirming little self in the water to get the hair off?

We were both so grateful when he finally outgrew that.

You were over to do family haircuts the day we adopted the little yorkie, and you sat on my couch and held her tight, squealing over how small and pretty she was, that wiggly little two-pound thing. You held her up to your chest and rested your chin on her body, closed your eyes and smiled.

The last of us to get a haircut from you was John. You were exhausted and couldn’t figure out what you’d done to make your shoulder hurt so much, but you offered to come cut his hair so he’d look good for his job interview. That was almost exactly one year ago.

The boys had their first haircuts at a barber shop last summer. They were nervous wrecks, and Brennan watched the barber in the mirror the entire time to make sure she was doing it right.

I took pictures of the big event, even though the boys were eleven and thirteen. Still. It was a big deal for them to sit in that chair and have someone else do what you’d always done for them.

The second time I took them for haircuts, we went to a different shop. This one was bigger and a bit fancier than the first, and they had those giant sinks with the space cut out in the front to lay your head, you know? Well, Brennan noticed them and demanded his hair be washed in one because he’d read on the sign out front “Shampoo and cut $15” and he said he wanted Daddy’s money’s worth but really he just wanted to feel cool and have his hair washed in the big sink.

He was so funny. Your little booger-butt.

Savannah bleached her hair blond in the fall because she told you she was going to and you said you liked it. Olivia helped her with it. It did turn out really cute. You were right.

Savannah was almost-sixteen the first time she had her hair cut in a salon, just before school started last year. I took a picture of her in the big chair, too.

She hated the entire experience and said the stylist didn’t listen and it was all wrong and she refuses to go back. So for now, anyway, she has vowed to never have her hair cut again by anyone else.

She’s planned to take cosmetology in Skills Center year after next. She’s always wanted to be like you.

Olivia hasn’t had her hair cut in over a year and a half. She wanted to grow it out for senior pictures and now that those are done, it just keeps growing longer.

I think she is just nervous about letting anyone else cut it. She gets anxious sometimes. More often since you died.

I’ve teased her about it, but the truth is I don’t want anyone else to cut my hair either.

That was your job, and I don’t think anyone else can fill your place.

At first, we couldn’t get our schedules to match up so you could cut my hair. Then you were so exhausted after work, you’d fall asleep as soon as you got home.

Anemic again, you thought, and started taking iron pills.

Then there was the pain in your shoulder, and it hurt so much I couldn’t bear to ask you to do it.

“When my shoulder gets better…..” you said.

We’d get together then.

But it didn’t get better, and now you are gone.

I’m trying to remember, and I think it’s been longer than a year and a half since you last cut my hair.
Probably closer to two years.

So I wasn’t going to cut it, but there are inches of dry, split ends and no matter what I do, it looks a mess and I feel like you’d be disappointed in me if I leave it that way.

I looked up a tutorial on how to cut layers in hair, and it said to just put wet hair up in a ponytail and cut.

That’s what I did. I had to use regular household scissors because I don’t know where your haircutting kit is. It might be down in the boxes in Mom’s basement, or somewhere packed up at Big W’s house.

If it turns out okay, maybe I’ll buy a pair of my own haircutting scissors.

I don’t know.


I was really missing you today when I saw those couple inches of hair hit my bathroom floor.

I wished we were in the kitchen again, drinking Sunkist and laughing about our kids.

The Way Things Used To Be.


So many things have changed since July 27, 2013.

I worry more about my mother.

My mother worries more about me, with a tremble in her voice.

I have more nightmares. Horrible, vivid nightmares.

I dream about my remaining siblings dying. About my mother dying. My children. My dogs.

My husband.

Their deaths are gruesome.

I dream about my close friends disappearing without a trace.

About adopting a new dog; bringing it home, naming it, loving it. And then it dies.

When my alarm buzzes in the morning, my blankets are on the floor and the cases have been ripped from my pillows.

I have come to dread the night.

And my child dreams. She wakes up crying, unable to catch her breath and unsure if the reason is asthma or anxiety. She runs to the living room and checks the dogs, feeling all over their tiny bodies for any hint of a cancerous lump.

My other daughter is just angry. All the time. Every day.

Every night.

When my husband or children are more than five minutes late coming home, I immediately imagine they’ve been in a terrible accident, and then stand in my living room arguing with myself over the stupidity of my worry.

Even as I peer through the window and down the road for any sign of our vehicle.

This winter has been riddled with colds, and anytime I sneeze or cough, my mom shows up with money to shove in my hand and pleas to take myself to the doctor.

“Catch it early!” she says, followed by a hard swallow. “Catch it early and you’ll be okay!”

Because my sister did not catch it early, and my sister was not okay.

And I see the difference in our family doctor, and I remember how she wept when my sister died. If my children or I go in for an asthma flare or a sinus infection, her face pinches up as she examines, quickly firing off questions like Do you have worsening pain anywhere? Night sweats? Random fevers? Have you felt any lumps? Have you checked for lumps? Let me check.

It’s different now.

Because we are now A Family Touched By Cancer.

And that makes everything change.

I notice the difference when I know a friend from long ago — when we were melodramatic teens giggling over boys and clothes and dances — is now battling her second round of cancer. I want to reach out, I want to connect and do something to help, to make it easier.

But I sit paralyzed.

Because I don’t want to see cancer anymore.

I close my eyes against tear-jerker commercials begging for money for bald children, fighting for their lives and losing their childhood innocence and can’t I give just a little of my paycheck for them?

I grab the remote and change the channel.

I can’t. I can’t bear to see it. Or touch it. Or hear it.

I am selfish.

I notice the difference when I stand weeping in a Wal-Mart with a skein of yarn in my hands, wondering at the tears slipping down my face; the burning, choking sensation in my throat.

I think and think and count the days and finally it strikes me. It’s the twenty-seventh of the month, the anniversary that somehow my tears remembered but I tried to forget.

My tears never forget.

I see a tall, thin women in a store; long blond and brown and meticulously straightened hair hanging down her back. I see a brightly colored, peace sign bag swinging from her shoulder and my heart catches and stops for a second and I think Oh! Charlotte is here!

And I take two or maybe three steps and then I remember.

I used to visit my father’s grave. I would cry and leave a poem I had written and I’d notice the cherry cough drops or a crushed Bud Light can left by one of my nephews and I would smile a little bit.

I haven’t gone since we buried my sister next to him.

I cannot bear to see her name on a headstone.

It was too soon.

And I wasn’t ready.

Everything has changed. Every bit, every piece of life has changed.

And sometimes I just really miss the way things used to be.

Stuffing, Veterinary Liniment, and Other Holiday Delights


On the outside, it seemed so much the same. I was thankful for that. I’m a fan of sameness.

Routine. Tradition.

I dislike big changes.

As a child, I cried when my parents changed the kitchen wallpaper or traded in the old Station-wagon for a new one.

So it stands to reason that on this day, this year, this first major holiday without my sister, my entire soul craved routine.

Carefully, I asked my mother what time we would be eating.

1 p.m.

Good. Same as in years past.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I considered recipe choices for what dish I might bring and in the end, decided on the same pineapple cake with homemade cream cheese frosting that I’ve taken every year for at least ten years.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we made snacks and hung out with the kids the night before, our own little accidental tradition that has come about over the years – this celebrating big holidays on the eve of the actual day – mainly because the actual holiday is so fast and crowded and loud and it can be hard to pay attention to each of my own four kids during a giant family meal, and also because I’m a lazy mother who would rather make snacks and play Aggravation or Sorry! than spend hours making an identical dinner to the one my mother will make the next day.

This year, it was a little different because there was a new boy hanging about. I can’t say he is my teenage daughter’s boyfriend, because evidently that’s an archaic term that is no longer groovy or hip to bandy about, but I suppose I can call him “The-Boy-My-Daughter-Exclusively-Holds-Hands-And-Hangs-Out-With-Whose-Facial-Piercings-Give-My-Mother-Tics” without dropping any points on my Cool-o-Meter.

He seems like a nice boy.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I rose early the next morning to turn on the Macy’s Parade, and began preparations for cake baking. I had time the day before to do it, but intentionally left it undone, because I usually make it the morning of Thanksgiving, during the Parade, and this was no year for change.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The snow was falling prettily, dusting the roads and grass and the mountains of leaves in my unkempt yard that I haven’t bothered to rake up and it all looked rather picturesque as we pulled out of our drive.

Carefully, we stopped at the local gas station to pick up two newspapers; one for us, one for Mom. Something my husband started doing years ago, when my Dad was still around, and after the big meal had been eaten and Mom’s fancy gold-plated utensils washed, and the desserts sat forlornly on the table, warm and messy from attack, we would spread out the papers and look at the ads and detail which sales might be worth fighting for.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, we maneuvered the somewhat slick, old dirt road that led to Mom’s house, the one we all grew up in. The house my father died in. The house my sister died in.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Carefully, I swallowed hard as I realized ours was the only vehicle arriving for Thanksgiving dinner.

Usually, there are so many cars pulling in on a holiday morning, some of us have to park in the road.

This year, the white blanket in Mom’s driveway was untainted by tire treads.

Carefully, I blinked hard and fast and bit my lip, really hard.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

But the smells were the same. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, biscuits, green beans with mushroom soup, all mixed together and wafting from the side door as Mom leaned out to greet us, the scent getting caught up in the bitterly cold air and drifting up my nose all at once.

The sight was the same. Mom dithering back and forth, back and forth, worrying over the pots simmering on the stove, ordering the carving of the turkey, wondering aloud if anyone else might show up.

The fancy Christmas tablecloth was on her large, wooden table; golden silverware tucked into little poinsettia pockets; the good, glass dishes overflowing with tossed salad and deviled eggs and every other traditional Thanksgiving delight.

She was smiling because one of my nephews had called and he and his girlfriend were able to come.

Back turned to me, she announced, in a slightly wavering voice, a change this year: instant potatoes.


Mashed potatoes were my sister’s particular dish. Every year since I was a little girl, Mom would boil a giant pot of potatoes and then they would sit, mushy and waiting, for my sister to arrive to add the butter and milk and do the actual mashing and whipping them into fat white clouds.

So this was different. Mom just boiled the water and added some milk and the instant flakes, stirred them up, and rubbed her age-weathered-but-well-manicured-hands together as if swiping something crumbly and sticky off them.

It worked out okay. They turned out pretty well.

For instant potatoes.

And this year, she remembered to set the timer for the biscuits, and did NOT burn them.

I’m kind of used to the toasty bottoms.

But I realize I can’t always have my way.

It sounds ridiculous. I know.

This year, we did not pray over the meal. Nobody mentioned it.

Nobody gave thanks for anything. Not that we were ungrateful.

It was just exhausting enough, smiling and trying to keep some balance.

My nephew and his girlfriend sat across from us, and he joked about being 23 years old and finally getting moved up from the little kids table.

At the head of the table where Dad used to sit, was Mom’s Canadian Boyfriend. She’s been seeing him for a couple of years now.

It used to be that there would be at least 20 people present for any holiday, and quite often, more than that.

This year there were eleven.

That might sound like a lot, but considering seven of them came in my vehicle, not so much.

So we ate and cracked jokes and complimented Mom on her cooking and passed the stuffing and gravy and cleaned it all up and washed the dishes and then set out the desserts.

There were so many desserts, and so few of us.

But we plowed through them, like the steadfast soldiers we were.

We sent the kids to help carry up the heavy boxes of Christmas decorations and Mom’s tree, while the adults sat in the living room and sorted through the newspaper ads.

By some unspoken pact, we seemed to all avoid the family room, where my sister’s hospital bed used to be.

At least for most of the day.

Mom kept repeating to me, “We have to do this. We have to make memories for the little kids. We just have to do it.”

And we did.

Mom boxed and bagged up the majority of the leftovers for us to take home.

The Canadian Boyfriend gave me a hug and a bottle of Veterinary Liniment and told me to rub it on my knees and injured back and it might help.

I’m still trying to figure out if that was some sort of passive-aggressive insult, or an actual gift.

We gathered our crew together and left a little bit early. My husband had seen an ad for a TV he wanted to try and grab at Best Buy. Ours has been broken for about a year now.

In general, I am adamantly against shopping on Thanksgiving.

But hey, I guess it’s a year for changes.

The new TV is nice.

The leftovers were tasty.

I’ve not yet tried the Veterinary Liniment.

At any rate, we made it through.


Breathe in. Breathe out.

A Man Named Danish

These posts about my sister, about the journey we took together during the time she was diagnosed with lung cancer until we lost her, are coming out in spurts and starts. There is no logical order to them (maybe one day I will go backwards and put them all in chronological order), but for now, they are coming out as they need to, in fits of hiccups and tears and sometimes even laughter. I hope somewhere in the path of these puddles of words, I will find some stepping stones toward healing.


I thought it was strange, because the building shared a driveway with the college I’d been attending for close to three years, but I’d never gone inside. I’d seen the people driving in and out of that lot many times over the last few years, and never stopped to wonder what was going on, how they were doing, what diagnosis they may have just been given. I never stopped to think if they were coming from radiation, or chemotherapy, or if they’d just been given 3 months or 6 months or a year to get their lives in order before their predicted death.

I never stopped to wonder if they were swerving as they pulled out of the lot because it was the day their hair started coming out in handfuls. Or because they’d just been vomiting in the bathroom of the dismally colored building. Or because they’d just learned their insurance wouldn’t cover the medication necessary to prolong their suddenly shortened lives.

I stop and wonder now.

I’ve been inside that building, and now my view is altered.

We rushed in the rain to arrive on time. It was the end of a Michigan April, and the rain was cold and sleety and hurt the skin a bit when it pinged against a bare hand or neck or cheek. Mom, my sister, her ex-husband, my brother, his wife, and me. We checked for directions on the maps plastered on the wall just inside the door, shivered a bit because our clothes were still a little wet, and took the elevator up to the correct floor. The waiting area was enormous, and white and cold, and felt a little bit like an assembly line: check in, show card, sit down, wait, get weighed, vitals, sit back down, wait for the right name to be called. Everyone there was in the same little rickety boat as us, everyone there was either waiting for a storm to break or had already received their forecast and were now awaiting directions on how to batten down the hatches and sandbag the house.

We all held some variety of liquid caffeine in our hands. None of us had slept the night before.

Mom crossed her right leg over the left and swung, swung, swung her right leg like a clock pendulum.

We tried to begin conversations but most of them died out within just a few seconds. The only talk we seemed able to keep up was the breaking news from the night before, about the man named Ariel who had kidnapped and held 3 women in his basement for years on end. The women had been discovered and rescued, and this was a safe topic to continue on with because none of it had anything to do with cancer.

“Terrible! Just terrible!”

“Really. A monster!”

“How was it that nobody saw them? Why weren’t they rescued sooner? “

“They say his son didn’t know anything about it.” (This was from my mother, and she sniffed with a kind of superiority about it because obviously it made us quite a lot better than THEM, and if the Universe had been run by HER, snakes like that would be dealing with a diagnosis of cancer instead of our family, who had never kidnapped anybody and held them in the basement.)

Finally, a nurse in childishly colored scrubs came out and called my sister’s name, and the way she said it made it sound like a question. “ Charlotte? Savage?” And then again, fast and altogether, “CharlotteSavage?” And the six of us stood and trooped along, single file, in the narrow hallway, down to the room.

There was not enough space in the exam room for all of us to sit, so we deferred to my sister, who we now thought of in our minds as “THE SICK ONE” and my sister-in-law, who was still using a cane to walk since her terrible car accident a few months before, and our Mom and gave them the seats. The guys squatted rather awkwardly on the floor and I leaned against the giant, cold window sill and my Mom jumped up and offered to let me sit down and I said no because, well, because she is my Mom, and also because it seemed somehow wrong for me to sit down and relax my legs at all when my sister had cancer.

We waited for the doctor and again, we tried to talk about something, anything really, but there just didn’t seem to be much of anything we could say.

What we all wanted to say, but couldn’t, was, “It will be okay.”

Failing that, there were just no more words to throw out into the airless room.

We waited. Time passed so slowly, as if each second was minutes long; each minute, at least an hour.

I often think in pictures, and so while we suffered through the interminable wait, I imagined what this physician would be like. I expected him to be tall and lanky, as many oncologists on television medical dramas seem to be. I expected a grim face, a gaze filled with pity. An appropriately hushed tone of voice. In my mind, he’d be wearing scrubs – perhaps fresh from a surgery – with tired, deep blue eyes that were crinkled at the corners and a white lab coat with his name stitched across the upper left corner.

I imagined he would resemble Dr. House, with a slightly less caustic personality. And perhaps a British accent, because wouldn’t that be hot nice to listen to?

A sharp knock on the door interrupted my imaginary-doctor-rendering, and we all stood up quickly, brushing at nothing on our clothes so we would look nice for the man who held my sister’s life in his hands.

He walked in with confidence, this petite Asian man in faded blue jeans. He was balding, and his face was wide, open and honest. In lieu of a lab coat, he wore a somewhat wrinkled button-down shirt, and when he sat down, the hem of his jeans came up just enough to reveal black leather biker boots with silver chains.

He introduced himself as Dr. Danish, and I instantly loved him.

I trusted him immediately, solely based on his biker boots and the fact that he was named after a tasty breakfast pastry.
He didn’t question the amount of people crunched into the tiny, white square of an exam room; instead, he remarked on the beauty of such a support system, and – gingerly stepping around the maze of extra legs and shoes and purses — walked around the teensy room, shaking hands and introducing himself to each of us. We answered in turn as if auditioning for parts in some small-town play.

“Hello, I’m Danish, and you are…”

“ Mary. Sister-in-law.”

“And you, ma’am?”

“Valarie. Mother.”


“Glenn. Brother.”

“You sir are her -”  Here Danish guessed at what was the most likely choice, then left his question dangling, mid-air.

“Wally. Ex-husband.”

Breakfast Pastry blinked. Twice.

“Come again now?”

“Ex-husband. Yeah.”


Danish turned to me, and I found myself clasping his cold but firm (not at all sticky) hand and stating my role:

“Valarie. Little sister.”

I’m not sure why I added that word, “little”. Was it really necessary? At thirty-eight, am I anybody’s “little” anything, anymore? But that has always been part of my own identity; I am Charlotte’s little sister. Charlotte is my big sister. It’s just always been.

Breakfast Pastry navigated back to where my sister was sitting, in a small chair at the end of the row that also held my sister-in-law and mother. He shook Charlotte’s hand gently, and invited her up to the exam table as if asking her to dance. I sat down in the seat she had vacated because my mother told me to. The seat was still warm.

This man, this Danish man in his black biker boots, explained the size and location of the tumor (we had graduated far past “spot” or even “mass” by this point), and told us about the way it had already eaten (he actually said that, “eaten”, as if the tumor was a living creature with sharp teeth) through three ribs and part of her spine – the T3 – and had spread to one lymph node in her chest. Because of the size (that of an orange, which then made me think of an orange with vampire teeth inside my sister) and location, the tumor was inoperable. He left that word, “inoperable” sitting in air the for a few minutes, so each of us could pick it up and examine it for ourselves, turning it this way and that, getting a handle on the meaning of it.

Charlotte cleared her throat and said in a very small voice, “So, what can we do?”

And Breakfast Pastry explained about pain medications to help with the agonizing pain in her shoulder, and he talked about an appetite stimulant to get some weight on her, and he talked about a PET scan, and he told her to eat more, and he said this was “fightable” and it was worth going through chemotherapy and radiation.

Danish said if she wanted, he could write her a script for medical marijuana, and Charlotte darted her eyes to our mother and shook her head quickly, “No thank you!” because even though she was in so much pain by then she had to sleep sitting up in spurts of 20-30 minutes and could barely move her arm, she didn’t want to disappoint our mother or agree to something Mom would find inappropriate.

He looked at my sister with her long, long hair and said, “You understand your hair will all fall out, right?” and she swallowed hard and said, “Are you kidding me?” and he said, “No, it will all come out and you will be bald, and you need to be ready.”

She swiped at her eyes and under her eyes and blinked several times and said, “Okay.”

He said, “Stay positive.”

Then he was gone, and I think we all felt a little let down, like something bigger should have been happening, because we expected him to tell us something magnificent, and as much as we all liked him, we were deflated because although he had said quite a lot, he never said, “I can fix this.”

And he never said, “It will be okay.”

He never said, “You aren’t going to die.”

So we pulled reassurance from the words he had given us, words like “positive”, and “fightable”, and we said that we liked him because he wasn’t uppity, and because he was like us, and had chains on his biker boots so he had to be a good guy.

And we all left together, our little big group of despair and hope; we walked back out in the chilly April rain, and I wished I had brought a sweater, and I wished I had brought an umbrella and I wished my sister didn’t have lung cancer.

We went out for breakfast again, because that was our normal thing to do, and it was nice to do something normal, and we talked about the same things over and over until Charlotte started to cry as she moved the food around on her plate in circles with her fork, and we all handed her napkins and sat quietly and awkwardly and tried not to cry, ourselves.

Even though it was a different restaurant and a different day, my eggs again tasted like sawdust and I forced myself to chew them because my mother wanted to see one of her daughters eating, and I watched the rain splash against the windows of the restaurant as I went over and over and over the entire appointment in my mind, trying to remember something good to hold onto.

I searched and searched inside my mind, reaching for something positive and tangible, but instead all I found were cobwebs of words and when I reached out to catch them, they crumbled into sawdust in my hand, just like the wooden dust of eggs in my mouth.

…..and just like that.

7856_468795936561744_310334071_n….and just like that.

I might be going along with my day, having a good one for a change. I might be washing dishes, or folding laundry, and I’m thinking, “…I should take something out for dinner or I should leave early and grab the mail or I think the dogs are almost out of food” and then, just like that, I think, “My sister is dead.”
And I shake my head and distract my thoughts, and perhaps pick up a crochet project and attempt to focus my brain on the written pattern.
Often, I screw up and find myself tearing the work back out.
Yarn can be a lot like life.

I’ve been caught while listening to the stereo when a Sugarland song comes on, or Bret Michaels, or Kid Rock begins to blare from the speakers and just like that, my pretty-well-held-together self is a crumpled heap of uselessness on the living room floor. And I know I need to get it together, for crying out loud, I have to keep going, I have to tend to four children and two dogs and a husband who is working at a job he detests because I can’t seem to pull myself together enough to get myself into a position to earn any money.

Knowing this doesn’t stop the salty oceans of tears from streaking down my face, falling onto my shirt, my jeans, my – depending on my position – filthy floor. It doesn’t stop the anguish, the sickening knotting in my gut, the wind that rushes through my head when I remember my sister is dead.

Logic has no place in my soul when I am so exhausted I simply MUST go curl up in my bed immediately, right that second, unable to summon the ability to keep my eyes open another fraction of a millisecond, and logic has no place in my soul when I am so exhausted I simply CANNOT close my eyes or rest my racing brain for even a quick breath of time.

And I lie there and stare at the ceiling or stare at the underside of my comforter (it’s purple striped) or stare at the distressing mountain of tangled-but-clean laundry on my side of the bedroom and I try to force my eyelids to close, I squish my lids against my eyeballs so hard I see shots of color, fireworks of pain… and just like that, the phrase repeats inside my head, “My sister is dead. My sister is dead. My sister is dead.”

Over and over. And over. Over and over. And over.

Just like that. And I wonder if I will ever get away from that voice, that phrase, that hateful stalker, that insidious whisper of truth and remembrance and pain.

But I get up everyday. I get up and ready my children for the new school year and try to focus my dysfunctional brain on something: on writing, on a project, on my own schoolwork, on my resume, on job possibilities.

And I pick up my kids from school and talk about their new teachers and jammed Junior High lockers and terrible lunch food and I nod and laugh and attempt to help with homework and I sign the necessary forms that always come home at the beginning of each school year and when I get to the place for “Emergency Contact” I start to write my sister’s name, just as I always have, every fall for the last 12 years I have had a child in school.

I have to pause, and my throat gets thick and sticky as if it’s filled with slimy cobwebs and the ink pen quivers above the forms and just like that I think, “My sister is dead.” For a moment or five I just sit there, unable to process what I need to do next.

I put my mother’s name on the top line, and nothing on the second line. The school will just have to make do with that.

I try to place my mind elsewhere, try to take deep breaths and rub the gritty sand from my eyes and think of something, anything else. The problem is that if I think ahead, I cannot formulate what a future without my sister in it looks like, and so the vision appears as some odd, grim fairy tale where bits and chunks of the world are missing, like a forest missing a clump of trees and part of the grass or half the sun is erased or the Gingerbread House is absent the candy posts that hold it up.

And if I try to force my mind backward, I simply see a slideshow of our past together, snipped bits of moments when we laughed or got angry or talked too much or didn’t talk at all.

Yesterday, something really exciting happened for me. Something I’d been working toward since high school (with a few breaks here and there for raising babies and potty training), and I was so pumped. I stopped at the post office and picked up the mail and there it was, FINALLY, there it was! A copy of the magazine my first ever article was published in, an article with my name and picture at the top, and for a fleeting moment I was so filled with joy and happiness and pride I nearly shook.

…. and just like that, the wind whooshed through my head and sand filled my eyes and I remembered.

I can’t show my dad. My dad is dead.
I can’t show my sister. My sister is dead.

I scrolled through my phone to look at the last text she sent me, because I wanted in the worst way to share this accomplishment with her, and I just wanted some kind of connection.

The last text she ever sent me just said, “ya”. I had sent her a picture of my daughter in the dress we’d bought for her Senior pictures, and that was what she texted back. She was so weak by then, just typing those two little letters and then pressing “send” probably wore her out.

My sister is dead.

I stare at that text and wonder if I will ever get away from that voice, that phrase, that hateful stalker, that insidious whisper of truth and remembrance and pain.

I wonder how much longer I am going to be this fucked up.

Little Boy Lost


It started over the summer.

We’d known for awhile that my sister had cancer, and though I’d offered to talk it out, he seemed okay about things. We’d go over to visit my sister, and he’d laugh and smile and talk and give hugs and play with her dogs and we would leave and I would watch him and he seemed okay.

Until mid-July, when my sister was in the midst of her last hospital admission, and the children begged me to take them to see her. That’s when things changed.

And he seemed okay while we were at the hospital, visiting. I made sure he had breaks from the sick room, and had snacks, and opportunities to talk. But after several hours, we left and went to a store, and in the middle of the store, he started a yelling argument with me, over a seemingly innocuous comment.

I thought, “What is going on?”

I felt angry. And hurt. And – much to my shame – I fed right into that argument. An argument with an 11-year-old little boy.

Until, in a very quiet, broken little boy voice, he whispered, “This is very sad! This is very, very sad, what is happening with Aunt Charlotte. This is very, very sad!” and then he hiccupped and wiped his tears and some runny nose snot with the back of his hand, and hiccupped again.

And I thought I understood, so the next day when we planned to go to the hospital, I arranged for him to go to a friend’s house to play and stay overnight. I thought the sight of my sister, bald and ravaged by this horrific disease that was pulling her away from us far too quickly, was what had him upset.

But while we were gone, I received a phone call from his friend’s mother, who told me Brennan was “a little upset, and wanted to come home,” and she put him on the phone.

My own stomach twisted into knots as I heard his tiny, tear-soaked voice over the phone, begging for Mommy, for time with his family, for home, home, HOME. He just wanted to come home. So I picked him up, and brought him home, and he explained to me that he felt he was having an asthma attack that didn’t get better with his inhaler. He explained to me how his chest felt heavy, but he didn’t wheeze or cough, and how he suddenly felt he would never be able to take another deep breath for the rest of his life, and how he looked around his friend’s new house and everything seemed unfamiliar, and bad, and sick, and he just needed to get home as fast as he could.

And I thought, “My God. He had an anxiety attack.”

I felt like I had been kicked in the face, my own breath taken from me, and my own chest felt burdened with a weight too heavy to bear.

I knew then that I hadn’t handled the situation appropriately, but I felt helpless to fix it. How do you do it right? How do you tell a young child that yet another family member he loves and believes will always be there is in the painful process of being ripped away from us?

How do I give him back the veil of innocence, the childhood security that should be his right? How can I make him feel safe, and that I will always be here for him, when it seems like everyone else is disappearing?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

My adventurous, energetic, always-up-for-anything little boy had – seemingly overnight – become shy. More reserved. Afraid to accept invitations for play-dates. A trip to the dentist for a routine cleaning was suddenly something to be frightened of, and he insisted I hold his hand and bring a chair back to the room with him and stay.

Once my sister had come home on Hospice, he insisted he wanted to stay at Grandma’s house with the entire family. He wanted to be there for her last days, however many more we might have. He seemed confidant in this decision, and I thought, “Who am I to tell him no? Maybe this is what he needs.”

And so we all moved in to my mother’s house, and slept on the floor. He seemed to be doing okay.

Then my sister died. My little boy seemed so adult that night, patting our backs, bringing the adults bottles of water as we held one another and wept, bringing us tissues and whispering reassuring words.

He played at the funeral home. I heard him laughing.

But as this summer has progressed, I notice my little firecracker sleeping more. I notice my laid-back, cheerful boy starting ridiculous arguments over nothing. I notice he laughs less and cries more, and when I question him, he says it feels like everyone in the world is being mean to him.

Last week, we were driving home from a far-away doctor appointment and he fell asleep in the middle seat of our SUV. Curled up against the door with his pillow doubled-up against the window, he began to weep.

My daughter said, “Mom. He’s crying in his sleep.” She tried to wake him up, but he continued his fitful slumber.

It lasted over an hour, and I remained helplessly in the driver’s seat, maneuvering along on the crowded expressway, slapping at my own eyes as they burned and watered and eventually dragged some mascara down my cheeks.

My son sobbed. Hiccupped. Wept with great, gut-wrenching gulps. Tears streaked his face and his nose ran, leaving a giant, wet puddle of liquid agony on his pillow and blanket.

I listened to him shudder and sigh, weep and gulp and then snore. How could he possibly not wake himself up?

I’m not sure when my heart has twisted so painfully as it did that day, hearing my youngest child’s grief pour from him in such a pitiful manner.

And then he woke up and wiped his face and looked around. Disoriented. Dazed. He looked out the window and said, “Hey! We’re already almost home. That was a fast drive! Why is my blanket so wet?”

I told him he had been crying in his sleep, and asked what he had been dreaming about.

He told me there was no dream, just blackness in his sleep. There was nothing to remember.

I don’t know how to do this right.

Somebody tell me what to do.

Omelets and Xanax


It was the middle of April – Tuesday the 16th, in fact – and in the midst of rushing four kids through the  rituals of getting to school by 7:30 a.m., I was struggling to cram my own shower and make-up time into an already hectic morning. I considered bypassing doing my hair and then decided I needed to look decent, as it seemed somehow that if we looked nice, the morning would go better.

Having dropped my crew off at school, I gathered my purse and a crochet project and waited on my front porch swing. I wanted to be ready as soon as Mom’s little silver Impala pulled into my drive. I didn’t want to be the reason we were late. Picking up my yarn and hook, I worked rather nervously on the infant hat while straining my neck for a glimpse of her shiny car. Finally! She whipped in and I ran out and climbed into the passenger side. I could tell she was nervous and Mom kept telling me how she couldn’t sleep last night, even though she’d taken a sleeping pill. I understood. We were all anxious.

Mom’s cell phone rang and she answered. “Hello? Yes, yes, we’re almost there. Don’t worry. We’ll make it on time.” It was my sister calling. She was nervous, too. Anxious to get to an appointment we’d all been dreading. Anxious for news nobody wanted to hear.

She was waiting outside when we pulled in. I got out and hugged her, and crawled my too-tall self into the too-small backseat of the car, giving my sister the passenger seat. I suppose, in some act of deference to the situation.

We talked about nonsense most of the way there. Stupid things, laughable things, repetitive things that meant nothing at all. The three of us checked our phones for the time, then double-checked the digital clock in the car to make sure. We worried aloud about arriving late, even though we had plenty of time before the 8:30 appointment. We talked about everything except what we might hear when we finally got there.

We passed the office at first, had to turn around in another drive and go back. Mom made a big deal out of it, though, because it was an easier thing to make a big deal of than the appointment we were about to walk into. At least it was a fixable subject.

Early. We were too early, and this somehow became just as big a problem as arriving late. We discussed what to do. Should we go ahead in? Wait in the car? Drive somewhere, a gas station perhaps, and get everyone a pop? Talking, talking, talking about nothing. Just keeping the chatter up. It seemed important to do.

An accidental silence filled the car. The three of us immediately leapt from the vehicle. We started walking in time with one another, confidently deciding to go ahead in. After all, there would probably be forms to fill out, insurance information to sort. Might as well.

The office was cold, and my sister pulled her sweater around her slight frame and shivered. I thought, She is so thin. I said, “I love that sweater.” She gave her name at the desk: Charlotte Savage. Explained that her insurance card had not yet come in the mail. Would that be a problem? She accepted the clipboard with its stack of white forms and we walked in tandem to the chairs in the waiting area. She wondered aloud about family histories of anemia and diabetes, high blood pressure and allergies.


The nurse stood, door propped open with her foot. The three of us stood tall, daring her to question why both of us were going back with my sister. The nameless nurse sighed and flicked her hand toward the door. We followed, chins in the air, shoulders straight. A trio of anxiety.

The room was small. Charlotte sat on the examining table, Mom and I in the two chairs pushed against the wall. We waited. We waited for news we didn’t want. We waited for an explanation that would drain our worry. We waited for someone to say it was a mistake. We waited for a pulmonologist none of us had ever met.

Charlotte said, “I think it’s just an infection. Remember when I had that bad bronchitis back in January? I think I’m still sick from that, I’m sure it’s an infection. I just need a different antibiotic.”

Mom said, “I think it could be a calcium deposit. I read about something like that in a magazine. You should probably be taking a calcium pill. I take Fosamax, myself. I only have to take it once a month. We should ask the doctor. Maybe you could take that.”

I said nothing. Nothing at all.

Three quick knocks, and the doctor was in. He shook Charlotte’s hand. He shook Mom’s hand. He shook my hand.

He sat at his little computer and looked over my sister’s chart.

“So, you are here today because you have a spot on your lung. Did you know that?”

A quick nod from Charlotte.  Her voice is suddenly stronger, her back straighter. She says, “I think it’s from an infection. I had this bad bronchitis back in January.”

The doctor is noncommittal. He makes a noise that sounds like, “Hhmnn.”

He runs through a quick list of questions:

“Have you been coughing blood?”


“But you do cough?”


“You smoke?”


“How much?”

“Pack a day. I had cut way back lately. But then all this (she waves her hands in a useless fashion around in the air) started, and I’ve been stressed. You know.”

“Yes. So how long? how long have you been a smoker?”

“Twenty-five, thirty years, I guess.”

“I see. Night sweats? Fevers?”


“Which one?”

“Both.” (Mom and I lock eyes quickly. This is new information. Why hadn’t she told us this?)

“I see. Yes. So you have this spot on your lung. We need to biopsy this spot to see what it is. You understand that?”

“Yes. I think it’s just an infection, though. Could you give me an antibiotic?”

Mom has been silent this entire time. Suddenly, she can’t keep her thoughts to herself no longer. She leans forward and says loudly, “I read in a magazine about calcium deposits in the lung. Don’t you think it could be that? And night sweats. She’s probably just going through her change. You know, her CHANGE. (Mom looks him in the eye and nods slowly, as if to aid his understanding. After all, he is just a man. A foreign man, at that. Clearly, Mom thinks he may be a little simple-minded.)  Would Fosamax help? I take that every month, and I never have got a calcium deposit on my lung.”

The doctor blinks.

“Well, let’s see what the biopsy shows. We’ll go from there. “

My sister seems irritated. “I don’t understand why you can’t just give me an antibiotic!”

He had been poised to leave, but halts mid-rise, and sits back down on his stool.

His words are slower this time, more careful.

“Let’s just say the spot IS an infection. Until we biopsy it, we don’t know what kind of antibiotic it would need. So let’s just go ahead with scheduling the biopsy, and we’ll go from there.”

Mom pipes back up. “Could you give her some Fosamax? Or something to help with her Change? I remember those night sweats. Terrible, terrible. No wonder she’s  so worn out!”

The pulmonologist seems confused by our family – or perhaps disturbed by the desperation, the denial that hangs thick in the air, like a palpable humidity – and stands abruptly.

“Right. Well. We can schedule the biopsy, and we’ll talk again once we have those results. So nice to meet you! Stop at the desk for that appointment. Goodbye!”

And he is gone.

Charlotte mutters, “What a waste of time. I wish he could just let me try an antibiotic. I want to feel better.”

Mom says, “We’ll ask Dr. D. Maybe she can give you some Fosamax.”

I say nothing. I can’t think of anything to say. I just stand up quickly and grab my purse. I watch my sister move slowly, trying to fiddle with my purse so I don’t appear to be watching her halting movements, and I think, She is so thin.

Charlotte tells the receptionist that Tuesdays are good for her, Tuesdays are usually her day off.

The receptionist blinks at my thin sister, hunched and in pain, frail and sick and blurts, “You’re still working?”

“Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”

She hands my sister a card and says she will call once the biopsy has been scheduled.

We troop from the office. Mom and Charlotte have their big purses dangling from their right shoulders. My sister’s left shoulder – near where the “spot” is – hurts too much to bear the weight.

I usually carry my purse on my left shoulder. But I feel somehow awkward. So I switch it to my right as we walk to the car. I feel better once we are all the same. Mom and I slow our pace to match Charlotte’s measured steps.

None of us have eaten yet. The morning was too hurried, too frightening.

Mom informs us there is a new restaurant nearby, and she’s taking us out for breakfast.

Charlotte looks back at me and rolls her eyes and smirks a bit. It’s so typical of Mom. So normal. Any excuse to eat out.

And there we are, in a cold booth at a new restaurant, and the waitress brings us two Cokes and one Diet, then stands with her pad and pen and waits for our orders.

“Ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast.”

“Ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast.”

“Ham and cheese omelet, wheat toast.”

We slap our menus shut and hand them toward the waitress, who laughs and says we all must be related.

We laugh, too.

It doesn’t take long, and soon three hot plates filled with enormous omelets overflowing with ham and melty cheese are slid in front of us. Mom asks for extra strawberry jam.

We all breathe out, thankful for the distraction of food. It had been getting difficult to talk about nothing.

I pretend not to watch as my sister cuts her omelet in half, and slides it under the edge of her plate, then cuts up what is left so it looks as if she has eaten.

Mom pretends not to watch, too.

We exclaim over the flavor of the eggs, the thin slices of ham, and how we need refills on our drinks.

Charlotte’s eyes suddenly fill with tears, and she quickly drinks several long sips of her Coke.

“I’m really sc-sc-scared. I don’t want to have c-c-c-cancer. I hope – I hope it’s just an infection.”

We agree that it probably is, and we discuss the fact that this doctor reassuringly called the lung mass a “spot”, and we collectively find comfort in that. “Spot” seems a much less terrifying word than “mass”.  We hand Charlotte our napkins to dry her eyes with.

Mom digs in her giant purse, and comes up clutching a small pill bottle.

She smiles brightly.

“Isn’t this nice? Just us girls out for breakfast! We should plan another Girls Day Out like this soon! Hey,” (Mom drops a half a white pill onto her tongue and swallows) “you girls want a Xanax? It’s okay. I just refilled the bottle. I have plenty. I cut them in half all the time so they last longer. Char, do you want one?”

We both shake our heads no. Mom pours the tiny white pills into her hand and holds her palm up in the middle of the table. “Go ahead.” She nods encouragingly. Her eyes seem a little frantic. She is desperate to fix something. Somehow.

Once again, we shake our heads in unison. No, Mom.

She slips the offered pills back into the bottle, screws the lid on and puts her bottle back in her purse.

The eggs suddenly taste like sawdust. I suck at my straw, welcoming the cold bubbles of carbonation in my overly dry throat.

I glance out the window, and the skies have suddenly gone gray. The dark clouds open, and hard drops of rain slap the cars in the parking lot, bouncing off the pavement, pounding at the restaurant windows.

My sister pulls her sweater around her slight frame, and shivers.

I think, She is so thin.

I say, “Did I tell you I love that sweater?”



Around 12:45 in the morning, on Saturday, July 27th, I broke a glass. I didn’t mean to do it, but it happened all the same. I knew the glass was slick, as there had been a cold perspiration about it for days. I knew it was slippery, so I grasped it tightly in my right hand. I was very conscious of that glass, and I was so careful, so gentle when I held it.

It wasn’t a fancy glass, but it meant a lot to me. You know how when you get really thirsty, and you open the cabinet to grab a glass so you can get a drink, and the first one you look for is that one, the one cup that feels just right in your hand, the one that seems to make your drink colder on a hot day? Yeah, that one. Sometimes, that special glass isn’t in the cupboard, and you feel a silly little bit of disappointment about it, but then you go ahead and grab another. It works, you know, it does the job. But it never does feel “just right.”


I’ve had this glass forever. I mean really, I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there in the cupboard when I needed it. Dependable as a sunrise in the morning, it never let me down.  Sounds like a silly thing to say about something so mundane, doesn’t it? But it’s true. I enjoyed the familiarity of it, my favorite glass and I. We had our own little routine.

Lately, it had developed a bit of a crack in it. At first, the crack was just a tiny chip, and I tried to ignore it. Eventually, the chip grew to a small crack, but I found if I turned the cup just right, I could pretend it wasn’t there at all. A couple of weeks ago, though, that damn crack seemed to spread right across my glass. There was no way to turn it, no lighting trick or placement of my hand that could cover the giant crack. And do you know what was worse? Hundreds of rivers of slits, cobwebs of fractures appeared. I mean, it didn’t leak, I could still use it, but I had to be really, really gentle.  I felt in awe of this glass…to be so broken, yet so strong.

There was no way to fix it.

We had a crowd at the house that night, and even though I was careful about the frailty of my glass; even though I remembered to hold it just tightly enough to keep my grasp, but not so tightly I caused it any more harm; even though I was cautious about the perspiration dripping down the sides….even so, my glass still broke.

It broke in the darkness, the deep of the night so black the stars were barely visible. Just before 1 a.m., when the rest of the world had the audacity to be sleeping, that’s when it happened. And the world continued to slumber, just as it always had, just as if my glass, my special, perfect glass, had not just shattered all over the floor.

It happened so quickly, and it seemed that I watched it from outside myself: my grip loosening on the glass, then rapidly trying to tighten my grasp in time, Catch it!; the slow, slow descent of my glass through the air, like a penny dropping through water; the eventual crash, the wailing of my heart as I realized this was happening, really truly happening, and I couldn’t stop it.


Pieces were everywhere. I mean everywhere. Those tiny shards of glass scattered all over my house. I swept and swept, and still, I continued to find more sharp little triangles.

Even today, and it’s been just over a week. I get down on the floor to scrub, and feel a piercing in my knee. Where did that come from? Shoot, it’s another piece of glass. Just big enough to gouge my skin, just big enough to cause blood to dribble; streaks down my leg, bright red polka dots on my clean white floor.

I wonder how it is even possible that I can suddenly find these bits of glass clinging to my shirt, digging in to my chest, paining my heart.

I wonder if I will ever get all the pieces back together.

I just keep sweeping.

My Sister, My Best Friend


My Sister, My Best Friend

By Valarie E. Kinney


When I was a little girl and

My sleep was filled with nightmares

I could run down to my sister’s room

Find peace and comfort there.

Sleepily, she’d raise her head

Pull the covers back and whisper,

“Come in, climb up, and snuggle down

Sleep well, my little sister.”

The summer that I turned sixteen

And learned to drive a car

She taught me how to drive a stick

We never drove too far.

Just up and down that old dirt road

Where we three kids grew up

Listening to Poison

And the screaming of the clutch.

The morning of my wedding day

So nervous I could hardly think

She rearranged my veil just right

And painted my nails pink.

When I became a mother

Unsure of how to do it right

She helped me calm the baby

Get her sleeping through the night.

I called her one day sobbing

And the sweetest words were spoken

When my oldest child went off to school

And I thought my heart was broken.

Four years ago, we lost our Dad

I didn’t think that I could take it

She held me and reminded me,

“We’re Savage girls, we’ll make it.”

Throughout the fails and victories

The challenges of years

The ins, the outs, the upside-downs

She kept me laughing through my tears.

My sister has been my anchor

In my life, I’ve always known

That she was just a call away

No matter the trouble life has thrown.

And now it seems just far too soon

For me to — broken hearted — whisper

“I love you to the moon and back,

Sleep well, my precious sister.”