This is how it’ll happen: she’ll fall in love with the first guy to make her laugh. He’ll be younger than she, with an offbeat sense of humor. His jokes soon become the thing that only they get; they tie him and your sister together with the comforting sense that it’s them against the world. He’ll like the same things she likes. He’ll have an odd sense of dress that she’ll find adorable. The first time she brings him home to meet the family, you’ll realize you’ve never seen your sister so happy.
You and she will be in different places by the time they meet. She’s an older college student, finally finding a sense of place only after years of failed attempts: first she wanted to be a hairdresser, then a psychologist, then an equestrian, now a school teacher. She’s already transferred twice. You’re preparing for college, tied up in boys, in drinking on weekends, in social status, the things your sister always hated. Once you two bonded about how much you hated these things. Once you two sang Alanis Morissette lyrics at the top of your lungs in her messy bedroom. Once you two made fun of what the “preps” wore. Once you purported to be anti-label only because she was, and snuck into her bedroom to throw her concert tee over your Gap shirt after she left the house. You don’t do these things anymore.
You’ll be happy, at first, that she met him. Her last boyfriend, the guy she stayed with for six years, was a drug addict. Your parents hated her with him. They begged her to leave him. She did this, eventually, only on her own time, only after he threatened to burn down her apartment, something she laughed about later. Your parents could never understand why she stayed so long. Only you recognize that this is your sister’s nature, that she’s a fixer.
You’ll learn of his illness in some off-handed way, some side dish manner that characterizes your sister’s way of speaking. It’ll be the first time you learn of cystic fibrosis. You won’t fully understand it, won’t grasp the gravity of what it means to have a terminal illness, what it means to be in love with a man who has a terminal illness. You won’t research the statistics of how long someone with this condition might live. You’ll be too selfish then to notice or consider your sister’s future already set in motion, even if your opinion would have curbed her decisions, which you know it wouldn’t have. You’ll see only your sister rubbing his back, talking with him in low voices in rooms filled with people.
In time, she’ll mention things, like the salty taste of his skin, the cough that he suffers through each morning, the crimson-black of the blood she’ll find in the sink.
They’ll get married on a bright September day. She’ll look beautiful. You’ll be her bridesmaid but never take the responsibility seriously enough. The whole time your mind will be elsewhere, thinking about a boyfriend you just broke up with, convincing yourself that maybe you do love him, though you spent the last several weeks confirming that you don’t. Your sister won’t mind. There will be a reception filled with few people either of you know. Your mother will have had control of the guest list. You will give a speech that you’ll stumble and stutter through, realizing only then that you’re a terrible public speaker. You’ll look over at your sister and she will be smiling, happy. He will look frail, sickly in all of the pictures from the day.
They’ll fall into marriage life, your sister the caretaker, he the patient. They’ll argue bitterly over little things. He doesn’t care for himself the way your sister would like him to. She will come to the house without him, because he’ll be too sick to leave the couch. She’ll be tired, agitated. Your mother will ask gently how he’s doing. Your sister will answer curtly. Most days she won’t want to talk about it.
She’ll memorize the inside of a hospital room. She’ll know the nurses by name. A year will pass, then another. You’ll move to another country, apart from all of this. You’ll only hear updates from your mother, who alternates between sounding terribly sad and having an “I told you so” attitude. They’ll still be normal people, still complain about their jobs, about money. They’ll maintain the cluttered nature they always had in common; their apartment will become a representation of their lives: chaotic but ever-changing. They will decide, in the midst of all of this, to have a baby. Your sister will be in her early thirties; his sperm will be encased in thick mucus. The doctors will give them less than a twenty percent chance for natural conception.
He’ll become sicker than he’s ever been. After one serious scare, he’ll have part of his lung removed. Again, you’ll hear this all from your mother. On the few occasions you’ll call home to your sister, she’ll seem tired but happy, but she won’t talk about him. You’ll see only the white tips of his feet as he’s stretched out on the couch behind her computer screen.
You’ll move home. The first time you’ll see them, you’ll be shocked at his appearance: he’s ghostly white, fifteen pounds thinner. You’ll look hard into your sister’s eyes and wonder if this is all registering for her. She won’t look at you.
From winter through early summer, he’ll be crippled with illness. They’ll still want a baby. They try alternative methods. They’ll trick a set of doctors by pretending he’s not as sick as he is, and somehow, incredibly, their sample takes. Your sister is pregnant.
By the fall, he’ll be back in the hospital, but this time it will be serious enough for him to go to a bigger hospital, one in the city, near you. His condition is desperate; he needs a lung transplant. Your sister will take up a dual-life existence. She’ll teach fourth graders during the week and drive the two hours to Philadelphia on the weekends, never leaving his bedside. Sometimes you’ll visit her; often times you won’t. You’ll be afraid for her loneliness. On a winter evening, you’ll buy groceries after work and take them to the transplant house where she is staying. She’ll be very pregnant, due in the spring. You’ll heat up pre-packed eggplant parmesan, boil some noodles. While you cook, another woman, much older than your sister, talks about her husband who needs a heart transplant. She’s been living in the transplant house for seven months. Your sister will nod, empathize, tell her story.
You cook too much food that is mostly tasteless. Dinner is filled with pauses. You have no idea what to say to her. It will be the only time you visit her here, though you live only a few miles away on the other side of the city. You won’t acknowledge that. Neither will she. She’ll ask you things about your life, about your day to day, and you’ll feel overwhelmingly selfish for even having a life, and consider only later how small your life will feel in comparison, how inconsequential, when really it’s your sister’s life that has become small: a rotation of hospital to transplant house and back again.
Though you won’t learn of it until much later, he’ll start saying things to her, like how he wants to see the baby before he dies. These things your sister will laugh off. You’ll be fine, she’ll say to him. You’ll never know, but never question, whether she believed this.
She’ll stop working in March, partly because of how pregnant she is, partly because she’s thoroughly, impossibly exhausted. He still hasn’t left the hospital. She is by his side all day until she’s told she has to leave. She sits in meetings; she argues with doctors. He is taken off and put back on the transplant list so many times it’s as though he’s signing up for a recreational sports team. Your sister fights the notions that his body is too weak to handle the surgery, ignores the underlying implorations in the specialists’ voices that ask her to understand what they’re saying: he’s not going to get better.
In the middle of March, a few days after your twenty-fifth birthday, she’ll text you while you’re working at your café job. She asks you if you might be able to come by the hospital later. You’ll tell her you’re going out to dinner with friends to celebrate your birthday. You won’t, in the moment, recognize the inconsistencies in this. Perhaps if you’d heard her voice, the fear that was hidden there, the desperation for someone to tell her she’ll be okay, that he’ll be okay, you’d have cancelled your plans completely and gone to the hospital then. But you won’t.
Still, you’ll know this will be the night. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you’ll know. A little ringing voice will tell you to not tuck your phone in your bag, to not take at face value your sister’s downplayed texts. But you will, and in this you drown out that little ringing voice with wine. Lots of wine.
You’ll be drunk before dinner comes. Your friends will ask about your sister, they know the details, and you’ll say things are fine, that his condition is the same. But you won’t tell them about your sister’s earlier texts; you won’t tell them that she’s texted you again, to ask if you’re still at dinner. You won’t tell them that you’re unprepared for all of this, and that if you just ignore it, it might go away. You won’t tell them anything like this because you can’t bear to see your own guilt reflected in their eyes.
Your mom will call and ask why you’re not at the hospital. You’ll explain, in the same voice you used with your friends, that everything’s fine, that you’re out to dinner. She’ll say the words, I think you need to be with your sister now and the little voice will make itself heard, springing up through the swimmy layer the alcohol has created. You’ll hang up the phone and continue to drink, absorbing yourself completely into a new discussion. You won’t remember what you talked about. Complaints of boyfriends. Complaints about work. Of student loans. All of these things were preferable topics of discussion. And then, the bubble you created to fit around yourself will burst when you look at your phone to see that in the time you hung up with your mother, your sister has called twice and texted once: Please get here. He will have already coded once by this time, but that you won’t learn until much later.
You’ll take a cab to the hospital, a twenty-minute ride that will truly feel like a lifetime. You’ll cry, hard. Whether from the alcohol or the situation, it’ll hit you then, and you won’t be able to stop the tears from pouring from your eyes, the snot from running out of your nose, the skin on your face from turning blotchy red. You’ll arrive at the hospital and rush in to a brightly lit room, hysterically crying. You’ll realize only on reflection that this should have been the moment where you pulled it together. Not for you, but for your sister. But you were always the sensitive one; you got it from your mother. Your sister was more like your father, could save up all of her tears to those few moments in private when she felt safe enough to let them out.
The receptionist will point you in the direction of a door on the perimeter of the waiting room. You’ll be wearing a too-short dress and too-clicky high heels and feel ridiculous. When you open the door you’ll see your sister sitting alone and staring at the tiles on the floor. You won’t remember later if she looked up when she saw you, or if she said anything when you walked in. From this point in your memory, things will become a blur. Years later, it will still feel as though you dreamed it all.
You’ll remember only these details: the color of her sweater (purple), the enormity of her pregnant belly (nine months), and her face (expressionless). You won’t remember how long you’ll sit there, your head on her shoulder, rubbing her belly, telling her it would be okay, trying desperately hard not to cry. Crying, you realize, will give the game away. It will solidify what’s happening all around you.
You’ll remember the doctor, his face solemn, when he comes in the first time to explain that his lungs are so very weak, and this was meant to tell us something, something that we weren’t quite accepting as truth. The doctor will ask your sister if she’d like to say a few words to her husband, and in this vagueness there was meaning: a few last words. Your sister will say aloud, the first words you’ve heard her say all night, I don’t want to watch him die. But she’ll get up, and you’ll lead her, trying to be helpful but not knowing where you’re going. You’ll stop part of the way and allow her to walk on by herself, and this simple act of seeing your sister walking alone, staring at the length of her backside, the slight wobble to her overly pregnant body, brings back the tears and the snot.
Your sister will come back to the waiting room and pronounce that he’s still alive. By then his body will be fighting against death, taking large, gasping breaths that heave his thin chest. In the time that follows (minutes? hours?) other people will show up: his parents, your parents. The doctor will come in one final time. You won’t remember the words he uses, but you know it won’t be direct language. There will be something hanging in his speech, lingering in the cadence, that makes you think, somehow, that he’s still alive. When you voice this aloud it’s his parents who correct you, who say, No, that’s it. He’s gone.
You won’t remember the details after. Like how you got back to your apartment and at what time, what you thought of before you went to sleep, if you ate anything, you’ll think only of your sister’s long ride home back to your parents’ house, where she’ll need to sleep in the twin bed in the bedroom in which you sang Alanis Morissette together, alone.
Three weeks later, your sister will give birth to their child. She will name her the name he chose.
Days will become long, nights longer. She’ll give up their apartment and move in with your parents. She won’t return to her teaching job in the fall, or ever again. She’ll sense him all around her, will claim to see him on occasion. She’ll tell you how her wedding ring keeps going missing. You won’t say it, but you’ll chalk this up to her disorganized manner, while she explains that it’s a game he likes to play with her. She’ll tell you about how he visits her in her dreams. After a few months, she’ll tell you what he told her: it’s getting too hard for him to visit, he has to leave. She’ll tell you how she begged him to keep visiting her. She’ll tell you how one day, he stopped.
She won’t be sad when she says it. It will be as though she’s unearthed some secret.
Three years later, baby Ashtyn will grow to become a beautiful little girl. She will look like him but act like her. She will begin to ask about her father. She will see pictures of him and point, recognize him. She’ll ask your father, her grandfather, if he could please be her dad, since hers isn’t here.
In time, your sister will find a way to move on, and you will become better to her. You will call her more often, you will argue with her less. It will be hard: she’ll be a single mother, and there is never enough time or money. But she’ll have a house just for the two of them, and people she loves. She’ll wear her wedding ring every day until one day, without much discussion or fanfare, she’ll find a way to take it off, to let it rest.
Rumpus original art by Kaili Doud.