March 8, 2001
My brother and I are sitting on the kitchen floor cutting pipe. Actually, he's cutting and I'm criticizing. This combines two venerable family traditions.
Tradition No. 1: when Alan and I were young and still sharing a bathroom, my father would cut pipe, measure paneling, or hang shelves or pictures, and my mother would respond "higher," "smaller" or "lower." This call and response is how anything got done at home, the critic as crucial as the actor.
"Too short," I say now, referring to the elbow of the pipe, which misses the connection by 2 inches. That morning, a small flood had developed under the sink, caused by eroded copper.
"Cancel the plumber," my brother said, flying into action. "It's only a $3 part."
An hour later, we'd been to the local hardware store three times, buying not only the elbow but various extensions (total cost $6.95). Alan had a fine old time talking about the relative value of copper and PVC joint lengths (PVC wins the day) with the other mechanical mavens.
This is Tradition No. 2: When the going gets tough, find something to repair. Fixing the plumbing is a fine occupation for a rainy day when your sister has cancer.
When my brother declared that he intended to visit me soon after my lung cancer surgery, I practically wailed in protest.
"There's no need to do that," I insisted. "I have no intention of dying."
Alan and I have not been together other than at family celebrations in 20 years. In this, we're not so very different from many other siblings in the Baby Boomer generation. Having witnessed our parents' eternal bickering with our aunts and uncles, we vowed to each other never to fall into senseless hatred, pledged not to replay the turkey scene in "Avalon."
Instead, we, who as children sat easily in pajamas before the television, laughing goofily together at Ed Sullivan and Dinah Shore, had become as distant as Will (of "Will and Grace") and C.J. (of "West Wing"), cast in two counterpuntal sitcoms.
But here was real life, my illness thrusting us together in prime time. Why did he want to visit me? Why the reunion now? Once upon a time, I had to shlep him along on my dates (he remembers our first shlep-along movie, "Gypsy"). Maybe he figured this was reversal of justice, him shlepping me. If he had wavered in his intent for even an instant, I'd have been relieved.
Among all the terrible things about cancer, the worst is not the humiliation to one's self-esteem. Nevertheless, it's no great thrill to say the C word and watch people shrivel up all around you. Some run away. Others treat you like you're at death's door. I told my friends that any folks who look at me with obituary in their eyes would be excommunicated.
But what I'm coming to realize is not that others run away from you but that you run away from yourself. Time and again, I find myself trapped by cliché. Suspicious that I am the object of sympathy, fearful that I will be seen as weak (not the physical weakness of chemo, but the moral weakness associated with vulnerability), I see myself pushing away. It's hard to give others the freedom to shift and adjust to this frightening news and to let them come close, as they need to.
From the place of my limited imagination, my brother could only have in mind a deathbed scene. Shows what I know about making connections, of the heart as well as the plumbing pipe.
As it happens, my father had predicted the sink problem only days before. I had just come home after lung surgery; Dad and Mom had moved in with me for a family record of nearly three weeks.
Here I saw Tradition No. 2 in action. My parents did what they always do when they get nervous: they go to Home Depot, followed directly by Bed Bath & Beyond.
While I was healing, they got to work. Dad and Mom installed a new towel bar. ("Too low," said Mom. And then, "That's better.") They installed the TV in the living room Mexican pine cabinet. They replaced all my old glassware.
And the more they did, the stronger I got.
But the morning they drove off to the airport, Dad warned me that the kitchen sink didn't drain right; he only regretted he hadn't the time to do it himself.
Who would have thought that Alan could take over the job? Who knew he had such a way with a hacksaw? That he understood every one of the eight blades of the battery-powered screwdriver he bought me? My brother installed a new bathroom mini-blind, new shelves and pictures.
"Too low," I said. And then, "Just right."
And the more he did, the stronger I got.