Both my mother and brother had breast cancer that spread and was joined by other cancers. During Breast Cancer Month, I am compelled to write about the loss of these loved ones. I often stress the breast cancer that my brother Joe experienced, because too many of us think that breast cancer is a women-only disease. So, this is an ode to Joe. Not only do I write for men with breast cancer, but for all those experiencing the loss of loved ones to cancer, especially the siblings with whom we expect to experience old age together.
Joe once told me that to most people, we were like two peas in a pod. Surely not! Our four year difference separated our lives and interests and the boy-girl thing made our intersection even less. As kids we were poster children for the “Am not – Are, too’!” kind of sibling rivalry, a habit we never quite gave up. So I was a bit of a shock when I revisited our childhood pictures and saw that we indeed could have been twins. The two of us posed sitting on a low wall by the Bermuda waterfront smiling sweetly into the camera, dressed in our colonial British best. Joe literally had my back; his arm was around me making sure I didn’t fall backwards into the water.
So typical that Joey, as I called him then, saw the danger while I was oblivious and happily secure with him. Mom told me that I’d search the house saying, “Where’s Joey? Where’s Joey?” An even earlier picture shows me as a toddler standing between Joey’s legs as he’s seated on a similar wall, my head resting on his shoulder. My arm dangles by his side and in my hand is a really big water pistol.
I don’t have many photos like this as we got older, moved to America and navigated foreign soil. Yet, when I was bullied on a New York playground, Joey marched the perp to the apartment and made him apologize to me. I never asked how he did it; we had an understanding about how sibling stuff should go. I’d put my head in Joey’s lap driving in the back seat of the family car. I’d suck my thumb and make comforting scratching noises on his favorite corduroy pants. “Mom, she’s doing it again!” he’d yell in protest. Giggling, I kept scratching and eventually, Joe sighed and rested his hand comfortably on my shoulder.
Joe remained a colonial island boy and played soccer, fished, swam and tooled around in a small motorboat he bought with his Bar Mitzvah money. I was an island sprite, a book worm in a pink tutu, my nose stuck in novels by numerous long-dead English authors. He became ‘Joe’ but I kept the nick-name Debbie with an ‘ie’ until my street-wise, ever-blunt brother informed me that only an idiot would go off to Harvard all cutesy like that. My clueless self compromised and switched to Debby with a ‘y’. Joe resigned himself to my inability to comprehend the cuteness of the nick-name regardless of the spelling, and called me Deb all his life. It took me forty years to figure out that I’d grown into my given name: Deborah.
Joe and I never lived in the same region after he left for California in his early twenties. We saw our lives, our careers, our personalities and our challenges as very different, totally unique, with absolutely nothing in common. My immune system from hell complicated the relationship early on. Yet, Joe was the one person I asked to adopt my daughter should I not be around to raise her. When Joe developed cancer, we struggled through emotional ups and downs until the cancer finally overwhelmed him. Over those years, we went back and forth between frustration and commiseration with what I can only describe as primal screams in between. Ironically, we buried our mother and other brother together, standing at their gravesides brooding about the cancer that had taken them from us. We ended up with more in common than we’d ever dreamed, ever wanted.
He took to the ocean for comfort; I took to writing. Joe’s swimming, boating and diving were fearless artistry. My swimming was a few steps up from a dog paddle and I only dove into the ocean when thrown. While I can’t say my writing was fearless, I did dive into it despite being pretty lousy at first. I found my sea legs eventually and was able to capture our island childhood, our coming to America, our unique history.
In our last conversation ever, Joe told me to keep on writing, to tell the stories and make history come alive for the kids, ours and others. I sense his arm around me as I write and I return to calling him Joey. In case you’re listening, I’m adamant and vigilant about mammograms, although I shake to the core every time. Thank you dear sibling. I hear you whispering to me and you’ll always be part of me.
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