For so many years my big sister and I faced a great deal together. A few days ago I jokingly referred to her as my Sherpa. But truly, Brenda was my angel standing by when I was teased and taunted growing up. The rude awakening which I have had to live with for exactly two years to this day is that I had not been her angel standing by when she needed me most in her life. I wasn’t there for her in the way that I know that she would have been there for me. The years leading up to this moment have blurred, thus I fail to recall every single time my big sister stuck up for me. Brenda wasn’t selfish. In my youth, I wished intensely to be just like her. She cried easily and openly; sometimes as a result of melancholy, but just as equally out of fury. If she needed something she asked for it, and in seeking help she didn’t feel weak or needy. She laughed with happy tears one minute, and would cry and be profoundly disappointed the next. Her raw emotions, and her strength, were illimitable. Perhaps what controlled her, really, was her wounded, troubled soul—ultimately, and albeit deceitfully, it would come to define her.
It might have been the late afternoon we were walking home from having sold Girl Scout cookies when I learned, although unconsciously, that Brenda would always have my back. True to form, she’d sold most of her cookies. Bragging and proud of having sold most of the boxes, we assumed Mama would let her walk the neighborhood despite the fact that it was turning dark, so she could sell the remaining boxes. Near home, we were walking through a grocery store parking lot when out of nowhere a boy snatched Brenda’s unsold cookies and the money from the cookies she’d sold. The likeness of the teenager’s silhouette was close enough for me to touch. He wore a sweatshirt, and the hood of the sweatshirt shielded his image. He grabbed and fled with such speed I had no clue what had gone down.
Brenda screamed, “Give me my cookies back!” with a stomp of her foot in defiance. She began to chase after him, but I cried out, “Don’t, Brenda, don’t!” It was an impulsive act, but Brenda was prepared to confront the thief. My desperate plea distracted her. She looked back at me, taking in the tears that swam in my eyes. By the time she looked over her shoulder to seek out the boy, his track star figure had vanished into the quiet early night. The tearstains outlining my cheeks were more out of fear of being left in the parking lot all alone if she chased the boy, and Brenda picked up on my obvious trepidation. In my insecure, childish mind I thought I was partly responsible for what had happened.
Over the years I have been eye-witness to Brenda’s astonishing courage. She was good at going toe-to-toe. I am often reminded of how the circumstances in her life painstakingly trapped her and it now seems so terribly unfair–she was like a rat in a maze. In hindsight I get it: she needed someone to believe in her. I failed there. At some point it appeared to me, the magnitude and span of her life’s challenges began to weaken her once natural resolve. Yet Brenda had a stubborn will. Despite the traps life had set for her, she managed to stand up to each one. Not always with grace; still, she had the uncanny ability to persevere.
Facing cancer was perhaps her most overwhelming challenge and she managed the disease and her treatments the way Brenda had handled much of her life: she didn’t back down. It makes sense now, because I always thought of my big sister as being so much stronger than me. It was one of the qualities I genuinely admired about Brenda growing up: I witnessed in her a brave, bold soul. In recent years I fully understood something that would have made no sense to me as a child—Brenda was not only loyal, but she was a person of undeniable pride. When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, that dignity I often observed in her even when were kids, got her through an unbelievably painful passage. It should come as no surprise that she survived cancer.
The most poignant lesson I learned through Brenda’s illness was at some point I stopped showing up for her. That has been the hardest thing I’ve had to work through, and I remain clueless on how to move beyond the mind-set. Although when she relocated to Los Angeles from Denver, a friend and I would stop whatever we were doing to come to her rescue on occasion—from losing her car keys in some obscure part of town to being threatened by a neighbor who had a knife at her throat. Still, whatever I did back in those days paled in comparison to the times in which she had been there for me. There is absolutely no contrast if love itself ever kept score. There’s an awkward irony to a death like my sister’s, and I continue to struggle with it. She was in a number of car accidents in which a few should have killed her, and at the time of her death she was cancer-free. You trust that the gods know how things should—must—play out and yet you fail to genuinely trust it because it defies basic logic. Too often in recent weeks I’ve gone back to the days when we were kids, when we played kill-ball, hula-hooped and jumped rope. When we were silly and innocent and very tight, and I thought my big sister was the best thing ever.