This Is What Family Does

by Michaela Mitchell
Originally Published: 

I could sense her uncertainty as soon as the words left my mouth. I wasn’t technically family, and the one person who should never have turned their back on her, did—without even the appearance of looking back.

When I was asked, six months into my not-quite-sister-in-law’s cancer diagnosis to be her main source of transportation, I did it begrudgingly. Like most people, I didn’t know how to handle or what to say to someone with cancer. I certainly didn’t know what to do if an emergency happened (I’m not sure what I thought was going to happen, but whatever it was, it made me nervous).

I was just the girlfriend—at least in his family’s eyes. Younger by too many years, living the uncertain life of a “writer” (whatever that was—I could see the confusion in their eyes whenever I tried to explain). She needed help, and I, selfishly, wondered why it had to be me.

But I also knew there was no one else with the freedom to take three hours out of the middle of the day to make round-trips to oncology appointments once or twice a week. And her brother, the man I love as fiercely as I have ever loved anyone, needed me. His sister needed me. So off I went.

In the beginning, we made awkward chitchat. An introvert from way back, I don’t do small talk well. Asking the stage IV cancer patient, “How ya doin’?” seemed trite. What did I expect her to say? “Well, except for the pain, the illness from the chemo, the complete lack of energy, and not knowing if I’m going to live another year, I’m great!” Yeah, so no empty, meaningless questions from me.

I did what I always do best when I’m unsure. I sat quietly, waited and listened. People who aren’t comfortable with silence will fill it up if you let them.

At least once a week, I picked her up, and we made the 30-minute drive to her appointment. It didn’t take long for the awkward silence to turn into not-so-awkward conversation. We had more in common than either of us realized. Both single moms to two kids, both of those kids more than four years apart in age. She’d done the single mom thing from early on while my stint lasted a few years and appeared to be over, thanks to her brother.

We commiserated about quiet children, children who didn’t listen, children who played Minecraft more than they played outside. We discussed coupons and ways to save money on anything and everything. We talked about cooking and picky eaters. We threw up our hands in disgust at crazy drivers on the road. We bonded.

It was weeks into our weekly routine of doctor visits before she broached the subject that surrounded her, the very reason I played taxi driver for her. The abandonment by her own mother.

In the beginning, when her mother walked out, leaving her to deal with her cancer and her life as a single mom with no car (another crazy story), no way to drive herself (sometimes the treatment is worse than the disease) and little support, I tried to justify it, to myself and to the man that I loved more than all others.

Their mother was in denial. She was scared. She was facing the thing that no parent should ever have to face: the mortality of her own child. She was wrong in her handling of the situation, but I tried to see it from her perspective.

But as time went on, as I witnessed more and more, those reasons paled in comparison with what appeared to be the real reason: pure selfishness. This middle daughter with her sometimes twice-a-week oncology appointments, her inability to eat enough to please an Italian mother, and her independence still firmly planted in her mind even when her body refused to cooperate had become too much trouble, a burden. A mother walked away from her daughter. Two siblings—and a girlfriend—were left to pick up the pieces.

I knew it wasn’t my place to ever mention her mother to her.

Over time, what started out as a task begrudgingly done for the love of her brother became something much more. I was the one who could read between the lines and report back that she was becoming weaker, she had a good day, she ate, she didn’t. I could give a report on how she seemed to a brother who was slowly sleeping less and less as he took on more and more of the stress and responsibility of helping his sister as much as time and distance allowed.

When she thanked me for the millionth time, my only reply was, “This is what family does.”

He is my family so therefore she is my family. And after weeks of riding in the car with her, hearing her hopes and fears, learning a few new tricks from a longtime single parent, she’s my family because of the person she is. Not helping her has become unfathomable.

I know she doesn’t understand that statement coming from me. If your own mother won’t help you, as family should, why is this woman, 12 years your junior, with no real connection, helping her?

I don’t tell her that I stood by my father’s bedside as he took his last breath. I don’t tell her that I didn’t get to say final goodbyes to my only grandparents, both of whom died from the nasty, awful disease that is cancer. I don’t tell her that I know what it means to have an ever-shrinking family because no one ever seems to survive past a certain age thanks to illnesses no one can cure. I don’t tell her that you’re supposed to cling tightly to the ones who matter most and help them no matter what, knowing (believing) they will do the same for you.

I don’t tell her that. I simply admit I don’t understand when she cries, “Why did my mom walk away?” I reassure her that we all know she would do the same for us in a second. I tell her she has family, and we’re here for her. And when I include myself in that, I mean it with my whole heart.

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