My youngest sister doesn’t look like a strong woman. A “do-rag” covers her shiny bald head and these days she’s tipping the scales at just over 100 pounds. She isn’t much of a threat to anyone or anything.
Or is she?
Just after my ninth birthday, around the time I was getting used to the idea of having a new step-mom, our family of three little girls expanded to include a fourth. As far as I was concerned, my blonde-haired, hazel-eyed step-sister was a special gift sent just for me. I happily assumed the role of “little mother.”
But, by the time I reached the hormonally challenging age of 13, I was wearing annoyance like a huge placard that read “Stay Away”. I was the oldest sister and I didn’t have time for playing with dolls or pushing my little sister in a swing. My world was “me” and to escape my younger siblings (which by now included a baby brother), I hid out in my room. A lot.
The summer my horse-loving little sister fell off her pony and suffered a severely broken elbow jolted me out of my self-absorption. A pin was inserted in her elbow and she was in the hospital for days. Who did she ask for? Me — the big sister who hadn’t given her so much as a glance for a couple of years. I was the person she most wanted at her bedside. At 16, I took my seven-year-old sister seriously and spent a couple of nights in a chair by her hospital bed. Seeing that skinny little blonde kid sleeping with her arm in traction, I realized she’d developed a case of hero worship. I didn’t feel worthy.
Once I knew what was at stake, I tried to pay more attention to my little sis, mostly at my convenience. I was amused by the fact she wanted to do whatever I was doing. Dress like I dressed, grow her hair long like mine — hers blonde, mine brunette.
The depth of my tomboy little sister’s devotion was on display when she let a hairdresser pile her hair in elaborate curls and donned a very girlie dress just so that she could be in my wedding. In photographs from the day, she looks a little uncomfortable, but she’s smiling at me like I’m a queen and she’s the princess.
We grew up, the two of us. Marriages, kids, careers. Slowly, the nine-year gap shrank. In time, we joined forces in the task of keeping our aging parents healthy and happy. Like bookends, we learned to hold it together and frame the sometimes challenging dynamics of a blended family.
We also became friends.
When we lost Mom last year, the friendship we’d cultivated was our strength. The two of us tag-teamed, covering the many decisions and responsibilities of arranging for Mom’s funeral and moving Dad to a nursing home. Our siblings helped, but most things passed through us. Our bond was strengthened.
Then one evening, I received another wake-up call from my sister. She’d found a lump in her breast. Cancer.
As a survivor of breast cancer myself, I was tempted to tease her about following in her big sister’s footsteps. Somehow, it wasn’t funny. She’d been there for me in my own collision with cancer; hers seemed more real. I wanted to protect her. She’s my little sister and my friend.
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother (sister) is born for a time of adversity.” Proverbs 17:17, NIV
So, I sit beside my sister while drugs drip into her body, attacking cancer cells and killing every other good thing that her body produces, and I’m amazed at how brave she is. With surgery and reconstruction part of the plan, it will be months before this journey ends.
The irony is, the year before her diagnosis my sister agreed to lead a Livestrong class at our local YMCA. The mission of Livestrong, founded by cyclist Lance Armstrong, is “to improve the lives of people affected by cancer.” Her class of cancer survivors has become her own support team. Fit and healthy in every way, my sister is tackling cancer head-on. She’s determined to beat it. I believe she will.
Funny thing about hero worship – it goes both ways. My baby sister is my hero. And she’s the strongest woman I know.