What Is Family?

It is a clear fall day in 1986 and I am walking the block home from the bus stop. It is my second month of high school; I am 13, a freshman, an artist. I am thinking about my new dog-sitting job; I will soon have enough money to buy a box of pastels I have been wanting. My brother, Carl, who is 10, is drawing with chalk on the sidewalk outside of our house. I am in a good mood; I stop and draw hair on one of his figures, and then stomp into the house, letting the screen door slam behind me.

The first sign that something is wrong is my mother's absence; she is typically in the kitchen or at her desk. Since the death of our father several years ago, the three of us are very close. My mom and I usually talk together while I eat an after-school snack. Then we read books or go for long walks with my brother.

I go looking for her and see that she has pulled the kitchen phone into the garage. I can hear her murmuring behind the closed door. All of a sudden I am nervous. I step closer and place my ear to the door. "Cancer," she whispers. Cancer.

Two weeks later she undergoes a massive operation for throat cancer. Surgeons remove one of her eyes and most of her jaw and sew up her face with rough black stitches. Carl and I visit her in the intensive care unit. When the nurses warn us that seeing her will be bad, my tough, independent brother takes my hand. It is worse than bad, her face is swollen and unrecognizable. She isn't supposed to wake up, but she does, and I hold her head while she retches. She collapses back on the pillow, her hands seeking ours. I take one hand. The other one searches blindly for my brother. He is collapsed in the corner, in a blind fetal position, sobbing soundlessly. He seems impossibly small. I take her other hand, and hold it in mine.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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