Just a few weeks ago, my family gathered in Syracuse (my hometown) to raise money for breast cancer research. My oldest sister Carroll, pictured above, was diagnosed with the disease in August. Her three daughters, all grown girls, organized “Team Carroll” and collected pledges to run in the Carol M. Baldwin Run For Their Life race. If you weren’t running, you could cheer runners on as they navigated the course that crisscrossed Syracuse University’s campus. Everyone planned to gather after the race at my other sister Janine’s house. I volunteered to make curry to feed such a large group, a big vat of vegan curry and an equally big vat of Indian chicken curry.
We had hoped Carroll would be there, but as the race approached, she had a terrible reaction to the aggressive doses of chemo that (we hoped) were zapping the cancer. She was rushed to intensive care. On race day, the girls and several other family members braved the elements (no snow, but cold rain) to finish the course. Carroll stayed in the ICU. Everyone gathered post-race at Janine’s, where I like to think the curry was good comfort food.
“Comfort” is a nice thought when someone you love is sick. Since August, when the initial diagnosis was Stage 4 breast cancer that had already metastasized to the bones, lungs and liver, we had all been searching for it. It didn’t seem fair that Carroll, only 55, who lived an exceedingly content and quiet life, never straying far from where she grew up, would be stricken with such an aggressive, insidious disease. Despite the odds, we were optimistic. These days, one can manage cancer for a long time. New drugs and novel treatments are constantly being developed. As long as you keep spirits high, there was a fighting chance, we figured.
It was not to be. Two weeks after race day, Carroll slipped away quickly. It was true to her personality. At our family camp, where our huge boisterous group would gather every Fourth of July, Carroll would often disappear to her cabin while everyone else stayed up for hours around the campfire. She’d be inside, contentedly sipping amaretto and reading a book, while the group animatedly played 20 Questions and other games in the dark.
Grasping that you will never see someone again is not easy. I find myself waking with a jolt in the middle of the night, or during a nap, thinking: “My sister is dead.” And the memories that come back, oddly, are not recent ones, but ones from childhood. I remember the sister who would take me to play pinball at the arcade, whose favorite color was yellow, who had a rainbow comforter and feathered bangs. I remember the time she brought me Chicken McNuggets (my request) when I had the chicken pox. And I remember all the afternoons I’d walk to her house after school, circa 1983, when we’d listen to Genesis’ “That’s All” and eat Doritos.
A few days ago, after her wake and funeral, we gathered again at Janine’s. It felt like someone was missing, something we’ll have to get used to for a long time to come. “I keep thinking she is going to walk through the door,” my brother said.
Friends and relatives had dropped off big vats of comfort food — which in Syracuse, a town founded by Italians, tends to be baked ziti. There was baked ziti made with copious mozzarella (a very stringy affair). Another baked ziti featured, rather daringly, a handful of elbow macaroni. Still another baked ziti had ground beef. It made me smile when I saw that my niece’s friend had dropped off a curry vegetable soup. Comfort food, indeed.
It still doesn’t seem real. I don’t know when it will. I can see her blonde hair and blue-green eyes. I can hear her voice. Maybe that’s how it is. The physical presence is gone, but the memories live on. We’ll always want more. But we’ll need to be content with what we have. My sister knew a lot about being content — it’s quite possibly the one word that best describes her. Perhaps it’s not comfort that we seek, but contentment. I will try to follow her example. ✤