Beyond the Cucumbers
“Here’s the image,” I say to my sister Nancy. I am sitting on the side of her bed, holding her left hand a little too tightly. Under the covers, eyes closed, she takes a deep breath. “We are at a spa, lying side-by-side, slathered in mud. Our eyes peek out.” She nods. Smiles weakly.
My stomach twists into a knot. Mud. Side by side. Sounds like a joint burial. Nancy nestles deeper into the pillows. Her eyes open, look at me, disappear again under eyelashes that drift up, down.
When I stand up, Nancy squeezes my hand. Eyes still closed, she says, “Our eyes are covered by cucumber slices. We’ll meet – beyond the cucumbers.” She chuckles softly.
Nancy and I have been talking about how to celebrate, should she survive this medical crisis. She wants to go to a spa, which for her would be a special treat. I find spas frivolous, even silly. But my sister is teetering on a thin edge, and if she lives I will take her anywhere she wants to go, no complaints.
Since I arrived at Nancy’s, I sense Madame Death everywhere. Just now her gauzy presence breezed by. I imagine her in the leather bucket chair by the end of the bed, chin in hand. I turn away, close my eyes, but even then I feel her swimming in my protoplasm.
In the next room, younger sisters Casey and Suzie wait for my report.
We three rushed here when everyone – her son, doctors and palliative care nurses – thought it was the end. We’ve been here for eight days.
But she’s still alive.
This surprising fact leaves everyone in limbo. We want to take care of her, and feel pressured to return to our lives hundreds of miles away. It’s impossible to talk about this without feeling a ragged guilt.
~ ~ ~ ~
It is Nancy’s blood cells that cause the trouble. Her bone marrow, which produces a stream of life-giving bits, has shut down – again. It is a consequence of the chemotherapy she received to treat ovarian cancer several years ago. Even though the chemo drenched her in chemicals that blasted the ovarian cancer out of her, it rearranged her body’s relationship with its bone marrow. She ended up with aplastic anemia, which means she has times when her white and red blood cells and platelets disappear. Then, she is consumed by a voracious fatigue. She needs treatment to kick-start her bone marrow. There is no guarantee it will work. At some point, we have been told, it won’t and she will die.
She had a treatment several weeks ago. So far it doesn’t look good.
The last time this happened, as Nancy seemed to slide toward death we endured weeks of hoping her bone marrow would respond. She consumed a dazzling pharmacopoeia and spent most days connected to bags of intravenous blood products. She became our own Sleeping Beauty. While she slept, we – her son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren and sisters – tended, talked, prayed there would be a “bump” in the statistics about her blood. We knew that a change in numbers indicates a chance at more life.
During that time I also felt Madame Death swish around. I touched the icy pool of life-without-Nancy, felt myself slip into cold water that crushed my heart. I cried and cried, said over and over, “Don’t die don’t die, don’t leave, don’t don’t. Please. Please.” Daily, I begged all forces to give me a few more days with my sister.
No one imagined how she could live.
But one morning at 2:00AM Nancy awakened from a semi-coma and began to sing. She called. My heart tap dancing, I grabbed the phone on the first ring.
Her voice: “I’m going to be OK. I’ve been singing every song I know.”
Then, her hearty laugh, a sound I’d thought I would never hear again. How could this be? For weeks she’d been inert, unwilling to eat, puffed up like a blowfish. Palliative care nurses orchestrated every routine.
“What? For weeks you’ve been dying and now you’re making music?”
I sat up, turned on the lamp. She told me she’d been at her keyboard singing her way through her huge black binder. I was speechless. My sister, a musical India rubber ball, bouncing forward.
Music. Of course. It’s the music.
In a hospital examining room days after that call, Nancy’s doctors told her the treatment had kicked in. She called me to report: “Isn’t this great! It worked!” How deeply she believed their medical analysis of why she had survived. But I had other thoughts. Although I didn’t tell her, I knew her intimate relationship with music was as powerful as any pharmaceutical.
What I did say was, “Sounds like you’ve had a spiritual transfusion.”
“Spiritual transfusion? What’s that? You and your wild ass ideas. It’s the meds.” A laugh.
This time, since receiving the kick-start serum, there’s been no “bump” in her blood count. Instead, bleeding. When that started, Nancy called, described blood flowing from her mouth and nose at night.
“It won’t stop. I don’t know how to make it stop.”
Her voice was that of a child, the little girl sister I once knew. To avoid imagining what she was telling me, I covered my eyes.
Then, a whisper: “I’m not ready to die. I don’t want to bleed to death.”
I thought about how blatantly the body bleeds when it has too few clot-forming platelets.
“OK, OK,” I soothed, “no matter what, it’s going to be all right.” But images of her blanketed in blood flooded my mind. Despair, cloying as a wet wool coat, settled in. Although it was midnight, I called Casey, then Suzie. We talked about work schedules and coordinating arrival times.
~ ~ ~ ~
Nancy and I are the fourth and fifth in a family of eight children, seven of whom are still alive. All of us are over fifty-five years old. She and I occupy the middle of the lineup: three older brothers lead and three younger sisters, one deceased, follow us. Casey, who is five years younger than me, is an artist married to another artist. Suzie, seven years my junior, is a mother and music teacher married to a businessman. I am a divorced mother, university teacher, therapist, and writer. Nancy, our lead sled dog, is a mother; and she has had more careers that the three of us put together, and has been married the most times.
Only sixteen months apart in age, Nancy and I wore identical smock dresses when we were little girls. We slept in matching twin beds, received the same dolls for Christmas and turned in unison when Mother’s called, “Girls!” Raised as if we were one child, we acted like two halves of the same cookie. Together we braved our brothers’ torments, played piano duets and shared swimming lessons.
When our bodies and personalities took shape, our differences emerged. Then, sparky and angry, we pushed away from one another. There stood Nancy: petite, curvy, sensuous, musical, popular. I was tall, straight, studious, drawn to perplexing questions about life and love. Both of us, we later discovered when we talked about those years, felt abandoned by the other.
It took until our mid-thirties to find one another again, but when we did we again became each other’s biggest fan and ever-ready confidante. For over sixty years, no matter where we have lived, we have talked about life’s journey. We touch base several times a week, swap stories of children, family members and friends. We visit each other whenever we can. When she is ill we talk several times a day. I go to take care of her as often as I can.
We have a vibrant bond with our younger sisters. When our mother was at the end of her life, to fulfill a promise we made to her, we four left our families and moved into her house to care for her while she died. There, for the first time since we were teenagers, we lived together and provided a gentle embrace for Mother until she died.
That summer, our familiarity and routines shattered, we four discovered a deep reservoir of ways to be present with Mother and to care about each other, too. That summer, we say, was the most intimate experience of our lives.
And then Nancy got sick.
~ ~ ~ ~
Not long into this recent medical crisis, I helped Nancy get to the chair in front of her vanity. Standing behind her, I brushed her silver hair. In the mirror: her closed eyes, her wan smile, my face twisted with sadness. When I asked her what she needed to happen while all four sisters were together, her eyes popped open. Looked into mine. I could see she thought I believed she would die soon.
“I don’t want to think about that,” she said.
But a few days later she said, “OK, you asked, so here it is: I want us to sing.”
My eyebrows shot up. Sing? Sing? Nancy could barely manage to talk. But then I remembered the previous year’s nocturnal songfest.
“You want to sing?” I said, “OK. Sure. Let’s do that.”
She nodded. When I told Casey and Suzie what Nancy wanted to do, their faces registered the same amazement. We huddled into a knot, silenced, sad.
Since childhood, we four have sung together. Our father promoted singing – not shower songs, but close harmony, preferably a capella. A musician with a sincere appreciation for close chords and tricky key shifts, Dad made sure parties revolved around music: group singing, people playing instruments, jamming. We got stirred into the musical mêlée. All seven children took lessons, played instruments, and sang.
We daughters still make music. Casey’s cello music touches places in me nothing else can. I sing in a choir that focuses on Broadway musicals and plunk a guitar. Suzie, the youngest, makes her living with music. Her passion is only matched by Nancy’s, who for decades has sung barbershop harmony with groups and quartets. It is the sky in which her personal star shines brilliantly. There she has lived and breathed music. I have always thought Nancy’s veins are filled not with blood but with the sound of music.
We all knew what her request to sing meant. She chooses a barbershop arrangement. She sings bass, I melody, Casey baritone and Suzie tenor. We proceed slowly, note by note, chord by chord, singing words and lines over and over until our voices are a precise blend. Until our sound causes goose bumps. Because we focus on every aspect of the music, this process typically takes hours.
~ ~ ~ ~
The afternoon of our singing took place in Nancy’s bedroom. Barely able to keep her eyes open, she lay back against pillows. Suzie set the keyboard on the end of the bed. Casey and I pulled chairs up close. Nancy passed Suzie the music she’d chosen and Suzie plunked out the melody to “Me and My Shadow,” a tune by Billy Rose, Al Jolson, and Dave Dreyer. Then, under Nancy’s direction, we began.
All alone, I’m feeling oh so blue,
Me and my shadow, strolling down the avenue,
Me and my shadow,
Not a soul to tell our troubles to…
We found our parts and began to sing. Every minute or so, Suzie held her hand up, played one of our parts and waited for it to be sung. Nancy lifted her head off the pillow to listen, nodded when the sound was right. Then, on to the next chord. Over and over, one phrase then the next. Then a whole line in harmony – all four parts.
After an hour Nancy propped herself into a sitting position. Soon after she said she wanted to stand, so I helped her get on her feet. She wobbled, lay back down.
Minutes later she said, “OK. Singers stand. We can’t get the sound unless we’re all on our feet.” She stood up again, grabbed onto me and the window sill and nodded to Suzie to begin.
And when it’s twelve o’clock
We climb the stair
We never knock
For no one is there…
As we sang, Casey’s, Suzie’s, and my eyes were trained on Nancy. In the next half hour, her eyes lost their far-away veil. Her cheeks went from pale to pink. Her fingers began to pulse with each note, her hands to wave with shifts in tone. I remembered the scene from the movie ET, in which the extra-terrestrial, saddened about a dead flower, touches the dead blossom with a glowing fingertip. His energy flows into the flower and restores it to its former golden brilliance.
Standing by her bed, now infused with sound, my sister did the same thing. From beneath drugs and death she unfolded, stood upright and alive. She recreated herself. The changes in her swept us, hang gliders in her updraft, into her universe where we four became one sound.
Just me and my shadow
All alone and feelin’ blue.
After four hours she said, “I’m tired now. We’ll polish it off tomorrow.” A full smile on her lips, she eased herself underneath the comforter and closed her eyes. Seconds later she was asleep.
Suzie, Casey and I closed her door quietly and walked into the living room. We sank into the sofa and sat there, wordless. Suzie reached out and pulled all six of our hands into bouquet.
“I can’t stand this. It’s just too hard,” I whispered. “I’m going to grab a beer; anyone else want one?”
~ ~ ~ ~
We didn’t sing the next day. Nancy was too exhausted. She needed a transfusion. Nothing about her looked good. But when we bundled her up and took her to the clinic, there it was – a “bump”; her platelets had doubled. Nancy nodded, smiling, as if she knew the treatment was working. I smiled back, knowing the music was again working its magic.
The “bump” only lasted one day.
“Let’s just wait and see what happens,” said her physician the next day, his hand resting on her shoulder. Nancy nodded.
~ ~ ~ ~
“So,” I say, continuing our conversation about the spa, “tell me – what kind of a spa do you want?”
Late afternoon light sneaks through her blinds, turns the room golden. The glow invites tears. Nancy adjusts her pile of pillows and pulls the comforter under her chin, closes her eyes.
“Ocean,” she says.
“You want the spa to be on the ocean?”
“Yes.” Silence. “Walking.” More silence. “Yes, we need to walk. On a beach.” Her eyes open, meet mine. “Small, intimate.” She touches a tear on my cheek.
“West Coast… wind, rain.” Silence. “Rubber boots. Slickers. I’ll have to buy one. Yellow. Maybe purple.” She grins.
“Who will be there?”
“All four of us. We have to sing.”