Vladimir Nabokov began his memoir with a rumination on the nature of existence. He pictured life as a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. The darkness’ beings the vast periods of pre-birth and post-death. I had read these words as a junior in highschool while spending one of many afternoons in my family’s dark, musky home library. In my freshman year of college, I would take astronomy and begin to truly understand how relatively short and small my life is in relation to the universe and time. Furthermore, this concept made me want to apply it to my life itself. How many cracks of light- of true understanding- would I have before my death?
Far before any of these instances of amateur enlightened understanding, there was a different sliver of light, a florescent wonder which shot out in a crease from between my sister’s door hinges and helped to define me and my existence. It was the bright yellowy fog that illuminated a surreal scene. The two eternities of darkness were the wall and the door; it was the state of knowing that she had cancer and then it was the occurrence of seeing it unfold before me.
I could see Liz’s life change. I could see my mother change and, with the recognition of the lump in my throat and the guilt I felt for spying on something so personal, I could feel myself changing. As my mother cut my sister’s already thinning hair to prepare for the wig, I watched through the door. My footsteps fell silently. My thoughts ran quickly. This was cancer. This was chemotherapy. This was barely an adolescent being and I was her sister. At the young age of nine, I watched the beginning of what would be my sister’s thus life long battle with a nameless cancer of which she is the only documented case.
It was the morning of our fourth grade field trip to the Bronx Zoo when my father cradled me like an infant. His eyes went red and watery, and he told me, “Liz has cancer.” At first, I thought his eyes were sweating. I thought his voice was cracking because he was tired. I made up excuses to rationalize the simple act of crying. In my head, my father was impervious to human nature. I wonder now who it was that told me that crying is a form of weakness. In retrospect, it is probably the strongest I have ever seen my father.
That day, he told my teacher. He paced the halls while he waited to speak with her. They talked and she consoled me there after. But I was nine. I was at the zoo. I played in the petting zoo and I chased butterflies. It didn’t hit me until I got home that day. I was too young to understand the concept of loss and the possibility of death, but I was mature enough to understand that my family was upset and shaken- a shifting, but strong unit of six people trying to save her by whatever means.
I had to know what was happening. It was my first time using a dictionary on my own. I looked up cancer. For a girl who never studied for tests, forgot every scrap of homework with its gargantuan fonts, and felt disconnected from numbers and history, I had to learn. This was my first independent study. I was leaving the first eternity of darkness and entering the crack of light.
My light was a newly discovered desire for knowledge. At night, I would trespass into my mother’s new medical library and borrow books that were half the size of me. I would read and stare at pictures that made absolutely no sense to me. What was happening to my sister?
My parents became ghosts that floated in and out of the house. My mother would stay with Liz at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City for what seemed like weeks at a time. My father worked arduously to compensate for my mom’s absence from their business. While the topic of cancer was fraught with confusion, this new set-up was something I understood and I realized my place in our reconstituted family. My job was to foster a sense of independence and responsibility. Success in this endeavor meant my parents could devote themselves more fully to the crisis at hand. I started recording my assignments, bringing them home, and actually doing them. I studied for tests. I founded an art history club. I watched out for my younger brother and sister. I painted. I wrote. I taught myself about the world and relationships. I needed to feel connected to my own education for my sake and for that of my parents.
Education set us free- and by that, I do not just mean my newfound love for academics. I became emotionally intelligent, able to experience and understand a range of feelings and ideas because I could understand the mechanics and clinical aspects behind sickness, death, and most importantly, life. And my struggle and eventual obsession with learning led me to a liberal arts college that would help me further develop the independence that I discovered as a fourth grader and continue to cultivate. And even last year, when I got the phone call that Liz was sick again, I reminded myself of what survival means- the definition, the struggle, and feeling of reaching it. I remembered the way my small hand curved around her bald head when she slept in the children’s ward of Memorial Sloan Kettering as I waited for her to wake up after one of her eight major surgeries that occured even before her thirteenth birthday. Survival means “on top of life” and both Liz and I are indeed, on top of life- watching it while we experience it, sometimes getting lost in it, and reminding ourselves that we will only accept our second eternites of darkness after our cracks of light have been as enriched as possible.