Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Little Sister

Everything gives you cancer/There's no cure, there's no answer
- Joe Jackson

And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make
- The Beatles, "The End"

My sister Nancy, just two months into her 54th year, passed away last week. She had courageously battled "stage four" cancer for over six years but eventually ran out of options. Chemo and drugs can only do so much before cancer catches on and draws its line in the sand; by the end, medicine had become as pointless as a comb in the hands of a bald man. She knew what was going on and where she was going, yet she put on a brave face to spare her friends and family the pain she so surely was going through. That's why, even though it was cancer, it still came as a surprise to me and to others.

You see, I forgot.

That's the punch line to one of comedian Steve Martin's classic jokes. He says he was caught robbing a bank and when the police arrested him, his defense was, "I can explain everything. You see, I simply FORGOT that it was a crime to rob a bank."

Well, I'm guilty of forgetting, too - but in my case it's not funny, it's downright tragic. I FORGOT that Nancy was sick. And I think a lot of us FORGOT that Nancy was sick because she was so determined to make us FORGET by putting on a POSITIVE, UPTEMPO front. She wasn't a WHINER or a COMPLAINER. She deflected bad news about herself and preferred to talk about how YOU were doing instead of how she was doing. She almost seemed apologetic when talking about her health, preferring to talk about some funny story involving her friends or family or work.

And she always stayed so damned NICE and FRIENDLY and POSITIVE. Of all the Warners, she was the one with the most PERSONALITY. BUBBLY, EFFUSIVE, OUTGOING, EXTROVERTED, SOCIABLE. These were all terms that applied to Nancy.


But if I had to pick one word to describe Nancy Stewart Warner Aspinwall, it would be CARE GIVER. Both in her professional career - she worked in the HEALTH CARE field - and in her personal life, she was a selfless CARE GIVER. Whether it was sending a no-occasion card when you down, or giving medical advice (we all relied on her for medical advice, asking who should I see for this malady or what's this doctor's number, etc.)

Nancy really escalated her CARE GIVER abilities after the death of my mother in 2002. I was recently reviewing some video footage of my Mother's funeral and I remember noticing how sad and upset my sister looked. This was one of the few times I saw a crack in her armor, when I could see how sensitive and emotional she was. The tears and sadness that she was able to conceal when talking about her own situation were clearly visible.

But after the death of our mother, my sister basically took over Mom's job as family MATRIARCH, melding that responsibility with the organizational skills she had mastered as a medical office manager. She was the one who organized the family get-togethers, the one who reminded me of everybody's birthdays, and anniversaries, and kept us all up to date on family business. She was a combination nurse, social director and town crier.

In fact, the best gift she ever gave me was a calendar last Christmas that had all the essential information I needed regarding family birthdays and anniversaries and contact information. Just like my Mom, she was there to remind us of important dates.

If ever someone had the right to be self-centered, it was my sister. But she kept deflecting thoughts about her situation to concerns about others.

Maybe that's why, whenever I got in trouble (which was often), I turned to my sister, who was my confidante about so many things. We used to furtively smoke ciggies up in the attic (she turned me on to Larks!), covering our smoke trail with air freshener and the big attic fan. She covered for me when I accidentally poked a hole through a family portait with a billiard stick and advised me when - as a foolish youth - I got in over my head during an ill-advised fling with an older woman. Right up to the present, she was always helping out. When my snooty community association censured me for putting a pink flamingo on my front lawn, she went out and bought me more flamingos to taunt them with!

When I recently was in trouble at work and really down about it, my sister sent me a wonderful card, out of the blue, saying basically, "HANG IN THERE" and wishing me BETTER DAYS AHEAD.

And even just days before she got really sick, my sister was helping me out with phone numbers for doctors and dentists and asking about my girlfriend and keeping me up to date about my Dad and brother and niece and nephew.


I think a lot of that had to do with her remarkable RESILIENCY. She was flexible. She looked at the glass as being half full always, no matter how obvious that it was really half empty. But I think she saw it as a case of what are you gonna do?

When she was in her 30s, Nancy had an Ovarian Cyst which she had to have removed. She had a hysterectomy. That nixed any thoughts about having kids. That's a big blow for a woman, emotionally and physically.

So what did she do? She found other things to LOVE. Like her nieces and nephews. Like CATS. And GOLF. And FRIENDS (especially golf friends!). These became her LOVED ONES.

My sister was diagnosed with cancer almost 6 years ago, in 2000. But in that time she led a very active, very social life. She traveled, she played golf, she walked, she gardened, she cleaned and did all the other things that healthy, active people in the prime of life do. And she did all of these things with a passion. (When she started collecting something, for example, it was always obsessive, never half-hearted. She collected pig memorabilia until she had everything. Then cat accessories. Then palm trees and pink flamingos. When I turned her on to HBO's comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, she bought or rented every episode of the first four seasons within a couple of weeks. And golf accessories, well, that one was never-ending.)

And when one door shut, she looked for other doors to pass through. Ultimately, she ran out of doors and ran out of detour routes. There was only one exit. And she accepted that she would have to pass through it. And to the end, she never complained or let on that she was scared. My sister was one tough cookie.


She did what she wanted to do as long as she was able to.

As much as her blood cells were teeming with cancer, so was Nancy TEEMING WITH LIFE.

That's the lesson I take from my sister's remarkable life.

If you've got it bad, someone has it worse.

Get over it. And get on with it.

Can't have kids? OK, have cats.

Can't play golf? OK, get into power walking.

Life's too short to whine. And you can pack a lot of living into a little time.

Wherever you are Nancy, I love you and I miss you. I wish we had more time together. Forgive me for not spending more of it with you.

Related Links:
Baltimore Sun Obit


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