The Birdhouse

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When in plain daylight Scott Dooley yanked off my favorite Strawberry Shortcake skirt, waving it triumphantly atop his banana-seated bicycle, my sister Shannon took him down.   When I was teased in elementary school for wearing Laura Ingalls-Wilder dresses with short socks and penny loafers, she shamed my mother into buying me Jelly Shoes and a colorful array of paint splattered, asymmetrical t-shirts… a transformation that in one week’s time would wipe the fourth grade mark off my back.

Shannon maintains that I was the most annoying younger sibling in all of history. I left tooth marks in her root beer flavored Bonnie Bell lip balm, told my mother she was stealing (and smoking) my dad’s Kool 100’s one by one, until she filled up the red tin behind her nightstand.  In my preteen years, I insisted on wearing near duplicate outfits whenever we went out together. If I could have squeezed my lanky twelve-year-old body through my dad’s Xerox machine in the basement, I would have made myself an exact copy of Shannon.

Eight years my senior, Shannon listened to New Wave music before it was popular, she had dark and edgy boyfriends, and whenever I was with her, I knew something exciting (possibly illegal) might happen. She ran with a fast crowd and was grounded at least half of my young life. But in spite of her unpredictable nature, there was one thing that our family could count on: Shannon had our backs. She was the Rizzo of Baker Avenue. She was beautiful, tough… effervescent. And pity the fool who left a scratch on someone she loved.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I thought Shannon would tear through the hospital walls in hopes of demolishing the news itself. In the days and nights following my surgery, she rarely left my side, a watchdog who barked at nurses that were less than gentle, making sure the hum and beeping of machines didn’t disrupt my sleep in the middle of the night. After I was released, she took me home with her.  She made a place for me in Denver where I was to receive chemotherapy. When I lost my hair, she likened my pointy bald head to that of a baby bird. “I’ve always loved baby birds,” she said.  And she has.

These past few weeks my sister has remained true to her nature. The day I received news of my recurrence she began making arrangements from her home in Vermont.   She insisted on flying me to Boston to see specialists, and within three weeks of this new reality she and her husband had purchased a condo in the heart of downtown Denver for me to recover in while I receive treatment at University Hospital.

Two weeks ago, she flew home to be with me during my tough round of chemotherapy.   Between waves of nausea, she filled water glasses along with generous balloons of “plant based medicine,” heaven sent clouds of smoke, which allowed me to sleep for hours on end.

One night when the blanket of chemo was lifting, we decided to go on the roof for a swim. The view faced the mountains and sky of our childhood. We swam, she laughed at my awkward breaststroke, we talked about the difficulties and benefits of aging, the blessing of our family, and how soothing cool water feels on a bald head.

Shannon named the new apartment “The Birdhouse.” Pictures of baby birds are strewn everywhere. And so at The Birdhouse, I am healing. White counts have been up and down. Some days chemo is possible, other days it isn’t.  The doc gave the go ahead for the past two treatments, and with the help of a shot or two, called the white cells to action.

I’m getting better at going with the flow, trusting that each day will offer what it will. These past few weeks have offered me time with my sister. Being in her presence feels comforting and familiar. She’s known me all my life. We’ve witnessed each other’s heartbreaks; we’ve cheered each other on.

Today, Shannon runs her own highly successful business. She has harnessed her rebellious spirit in the direction of the sacred. Her work inspires doctors to see their patients, not just treat them. Her words sprawl across hospital walls reminding healthcare workers of the calling that resides at the center of their profession: that they are healers, counselors, advocates to those in need, those hurting, those afraid. Her message makes a difference and speaks to the heart.

I admire my sister. I am grateful for her. I feel fortunate that we were born of the same parents, traveling in the same lifeboat, over the same rocky waters of this lifetime.