January 20th, 2011 - Judy Bolton-Fasman
When my sister Carol opened the door on Thursday, January 20, 2011, the morning of her 47th birthday, she was as bald as our father and grandfather. During this cancer year, Carol almost always wrapped her beautiful, symmetrical head in a scarf. To this day, I regret that my sister registered my much too obvious shock. “I know,” she said. “I look just like dad.”
That birthday morning, I ran my finger along the granite edge between life and death. “Dad and grandpa came to me again,” Carol said. Although she called their visits dreams, she wasn’t sure if she actually saw their midnight ghosts hovering over her.
Carol’s anomalous birthday was in the middle of an anomalous year that took root in April of 2010 when she and I went to see a medium. We were among an audience of over 100 people, and the medium drifted to our section. As she passed our row, she drew in a sharp breath: “I sense someone has cancer.” Carol had found a lump in her right breast the week before and was waiting for the results of a biopsy. “She’s talking about me,” my sister whispered.
It makes all the sense in the world that our dad would come to Carol in times of trouble. Their birthdays are a day apart—Dad’s was on January 19. Carol is not only my father’s birthday doppelganger; she is, without doubt, his favorite daughter. Families draw lines, designate allies, and pit one against the other. I was left to deal with my mother.
Carol and I are three years apart, but as little girls, our mother dressed us in identical outfits. Our family was built on the closeness, the claustrophobia of twins. On her 47th birthday, Carol and I knowingly laughed when we realized that we were wearing the same gray tunic.
When people ask who the older sister is, I almost always point to Carol, and my silly subterfuge annoys her. But whether in sickness or health, my sister always looks young. I’m the dowdy one—the bible’s overlooked Leah to Carol’s beloved, beautiful Rachel.
Carol was a joyful child. When she was three, she danced with abandon to the feisty “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” I couldn’t take my eyes off of her as I sat in a large, wheezy rocking chair, my feet stuck out at 90-degree angles, wishing that I knew how to join her, when I was more likely to listen to the somber “Ballad of the Green Berets” on repeat.
Mondays were Carol’s chemo days, the drip, drip, drip of poison went from August to January, and did wicked things to her. During the first couple of days after each treatment, my little sister was weak, nauseated. By Wednesdays, the steroids wore off and catapulted her into a crying jag lasting until the next dose. After six months, the full course of chemotherapy was finally winding down. Carol’s last dose of Taxol was scheduled for January 24.
When Carol asked our mother to accompany her to treatments, mom had her own crying fit, saying that she could not watch her daughter dying. Our mother offered to buy a wig for Carol because she was terrified to imagine my sister without hair. But insurance covered the cost of the wig and Carol never took to wearing it anyway—too hot and itchy. My sister didn’t wear it because it glossed over the harshness of cancer.
In the end, our mother never made it to any of Carol’s chemo sessions. To fill the void, Carol recruited a sisterhood to accompany her to those appointments. These were women who willingly took on maternal roles and were not afraid to see my sister bald. Carol and I have always had a talent for finding the mother figures we need.
During one chemo infusion, Carol fell into a deep sleep. I placed my hand above her mouth several times an hour to make sure that she was breathing. She was slumbering so soundly that when she woke with a start, she was sure she was dead. “It was the blackest, most dreamless sleep, and dad and grandpa were nowhere to be found,” she said, flailing. I cradled her and assured her that she was very much alive.
My sister has recovered from cancer. Yet with each scan, she can’t let go of the feeling that she is still fighting for her life. I recently asked her to tell me what she remembered about her birthday ten years ago, and she recalled leaning so far over her cake that the candles’ flames grazed her face.
She prayed over those candles too. “That was the birthday,” she told me, “that I asked God to let me see our children grow up.”
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including the New York Times and literary magazines such as McSweeney’s, Brevity, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Catapult and the anthology, The Shell Game: Writers Play With Borrowed Forms (University of Nebraska Press). A recent essay has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Judy also has an essay in the forthcoming anthology, (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Regal House Publishing). She is the recipient of the Alonzo G. Davis Fellowship for Latinx writers from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and has been the Erin Donovan Fellow in Non-Fiction at the Mineral School. Her memoir, Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets is forthcoming in the fall of 2021 from Mandel Vilar Press. She lives outside of Boston with her family.