Only a year apart, my sister and I were a bad fit as kids. I was older but smaller. She was loud, and I hated noise. She was fearless, and I was a crybaby. She and our younger brother liked to jump out from under the basement stairs to make me scream. In our shared room, her closet was too stuffed to close. My side of the shared desk neat, and the pile on her side an avalanche waiting for a yodel. She taped a line between our twin beds, the door on her side. When my cats bit off her gerbils’ tails and later their heads, I felt little remorse.
Covid-19 and cancer stoke our fear of dying, but you can’t catch cancer from droplets launched by an errant sneeze or cough. Cancer patients should avoid sick people, but they need frequent hugs and foot rubs, sympathetic smiles unsheathed from hospital masks, a hand to hold during treatments. To be sick with the former in the time of the latter is to be denied the basic elements of healing and comfort.
Our hour trying to make sense of impressionism stretches into days, but it’s slow going. Aside from regular comments like, you’d think it would be easier to find this, and occasional hoots when one of us clicks a piece into place, we are silent for long stretches. I’ve claimed the right-side-up, and I stand where I can survey the whole table. As always, I search for patterns, hold out for the single piece that will unlock the whole. I’m convinced the sky will fall into place if I can just construct the horizon line, the steeple that bisects the sky, the windows that dot the village. Bone-tired from her chemo treatment, my sister sits across from me. She methodically chooses pieces and tries them in every possible configuration. She assembles little constellations inside and outside the border—in twos, threes, and fours. Her constructions are hard to move, and when I ask where they go, she shrugs and says, “I’ll leave that to you. You’re better at that.”
Into our forties, she spouted, “It’s not fair! You always get the good stuff! You got real doll furniture, and I got plastic. You got Grandma’s ring and dishes, and I got nothing.” I argued back, tit for tat .“You never went to see Grandma, “You got Mom’s ring and dishes. You don’t have to pay rent.” She was right about the doll furniture, but couldn’t she see the flip side of my leaving home at eighteen? My more husbands, occupations, college degrees, and addresses came with more trouble, mistakes, and distance. Grown-ups sitting at our mother’s kitchen table, we measured and compared our relative worth like kids counting Christmas presents.
Like ovarian cancer, Covid-19 colonizes the body. Once lodged inside, the virus can catapult from lungs to brain to heart. Some cancer cells weep, and a third of women with ovarian cancer develop ascites, an uncomfortable buildup of fluid in the abdomen that acts as a superhighway to convey cancer cells to the abdominal lining and other organs.
My sister has tucked her thinning hair under a scarf, but I still pluck strands from among the puzzle pieces. Chemo has whittled her face and body skeletal, her skin translucent. She’s become a stylish waif whose clothes drape the way mine did when I was the thin one. Next to her new lines and angles, I feel smudgy and fragmented. Enough, I tell myself. I came home to help, yet here I am, envying the artistry of cancer.
One New Year’s Eve, my sister and I double-dated at a pier-side restaurant. I was with husband number two, and she was with a boyfriend I don’t recall. Just after midnight, her champagne bubbled into a tirade. “Meet my sister,” she mocked while strangers at nearby tables turned toward the commotion, “who always uses hundred-dollar words when five-dollar ones would do! She thinks she’s smarter than everyone else!” I feigned shock, yet it’s quite possible I’d egged her on. Another time, she declared, “I’m sick of you and your 1000-dollar words! Tired of you making me feel dumb.” The family know-it-all, I donned an icy smile and mentally noted that my word value had risen. I savored thinking I was the smart one.
Under attack, the body can become its own worst enemy. The immune system of an unwitting Covid-19 host goes into battle mode. The resulting showdown is an all-or-nothing war where the body defends itself so well it dies. Chemo takes the battle in other directions, attacking the cancer cells in the body of a patient and killing off the immune system as well. Flattening the field, not the curve. Patients in chemo are at high risk of infection from everything and everyone, the common cold to Covid-19.
My sister and I segregate the puzzle pieces by color until we notice that some of the blues are infused with yellow, green, or black. Some have diagonal brushstrokes while others swirl or are dabbed or hatched. The parts refuse to be separated from the whole. “I hate this puzzle,” I say. “So do I,” she replies. Yet for hours we forget to look up at the water and trees misting beyond the windows. I stop taking mental inventories of the refrigerator and plotting my next run for supplies.
In our fifties, my sister told me about a neighbor who took her fishing. “I was excited to have a friend with a boat,” she said. “Then we got out on the water, and she wanted to have deep conversations. I hate that! I’m not deep. I just wanted to fish!” That, I thought, sums up the gap between us. I’m the thinker and dreamer. She’s the problem solver and practical doer.
There is no vaccination for Covid-19 or ovarian cancer. Testing for either disease, if you can get it, is inconclusive. Not everyone with Covid-19 gets a fever. Some carriers are asymptomatic. Ovarian cancer has an assortment of symptoms that may or may not be related to the disease, so it is difficult to detect. The five-year survival rate for stage 3 is 39%, but many women are not diagnosed until they reach stage 4. Their chances drop to 17%.
My sister wears her red reading glasses while she turns pieces one way and another. She needs a new prescription, but she has a pile of medical bills to pay out of her social security check. “When you look at the pieces,” I ask her, “do you see people?” “Not really,” she answers. I notice how I hold spaces in mind by repeating defective shapes: two innies and an outie, thalidomide arms, hammerhead, club foot. As I find a fit for one of her constructions, I realize my ability to see the big picture isn’t much good without someone who can fiddle the smaller bits.
In our early sixties, my sister and I commiserated after our father’s death. We, who’d once had our smart mouths washed out with soap, who were supposed to grow up to be nice girls, found comfort in irreverent girl humor. “No wonder Mom collects dolls,” I say. My sister laughs and says, “I think they’re kind of scary.” If the dolls were us, I’d be the serious one with glasses and a book. My sister would be the friendly-faced one who looks like she is generous and knows how to make kids laugh.
Disease is a lurker, a sneak. The Covid-19 virus hitchhikes on sneezes and hitchhikes on kitchen counters. It leapfrogs through families and communities. Cancer emerges out of nowhere like a magician-less rabbit hopping out of a hat or slithers between generations like a snake in deep grass. Women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent are more likely than the general population to carry BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, markers that sound ovarian and breast cancer alarms. I picture the DNA of our Jewish grandfather notched into the rest of our heritage, a motley assembláge. Stay apart to stay healthy, Covid-19 experts say, but cancer insists that even apart, we—all of us—are the sum of our parts.
Four weeks into Starry Night and too many fragments of sky litter the tabletop. I fidget and wander and circle back. We check for missing pieces under the table, lament the scatter of blue. As we tinker, we talk about what we will plant when the weather improves, the visit I want my sister to make to see me in Hong Kong when the world returns to normal. My sister says, “I wonder when the new puzzle will arrive.” “Not soon enough,” I reply. She fits together several more pieces while I rotate stars. and wonder if Van Gogh was afraid of the dark, if he painted the night to inject it with light.