I got my first period on my mom’s birthday when I was thirteen. My aunt Karen was throwing a family barbecue; she always made sure to do something special for my mom, who, otherwise, has always been the one taking care of everyone else. When we arrived at Karen’s house I went straight to the couch and plopped down. I felt nauseous and had cramps. Karen immediately noticed my weary demeanor and pressed for information – she never let anything slide without a chance to make a remark or share an opinion. My mom explained to her that I had started my period and I blushed, embarrassed that my mom would tell anyone about my new development. I knew it symbolized my impending womanhood, but at thirteen, I was scrawny, skinny, and didn’t feel like much of a woman. Karen reacted enthusiastically to the news and came to tell me that we were “moon sisters”; she hadn’t been due to start her period for three more days, but she got it that very same day too, despite it being regulated by birth control pills.
I felt so proud that she called us that; it reaffirmed my longheld idea that I was special to her, that we had some sort of spiritual connection, a sacred bond. She had always told me I was her favorite niece, and she treated me as such. She would shower me with affection the way old aunties do in movies, except when she saw me she would pinch my butt cheeks instead of the ones on my face. She wasn’t old, either – she was young and beautiful. It was reassuring to know that the gregarious younger sister of my mother picked me — out of all the women in our family — to be her moon sister. I took moon-sisterhood to mean much more than the two of us happening to menstruate at the same time. It wasn’t until recently that the value of this memory came full circle.
Two years ago, I was at work when I saw a missed call from my mom on my cell phone. I went to call her back and then got distracted by something, leaving my phone mid-ring on the counter. After a few seconds, I heard a little voice saying hello? hello? I put it to my ear and apologized, asking my mom why she called. She calmly explained that Karen had just found out she had cancer. There was a tumor on her kidney, and the size of a grapefruit. It had spread. My mom held a sad but hopeful tone, and the news gave me a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew I was supposed to be optimistic, but a certain doom was lingering. My eyes swelled with tears as I hung up the phone. The next day I sent Karen a text telling her how much I loved her, and that I was thinking about her. She texted back saying thanks and that she loved me too — not to worry, she would kick its butt.
The flurry of phone calls between family members and the back and forth about test results and what the doctors said happened over the next several days as the pain in Karen’s back got worse and worse. She could barely do more than lie on the couch – even being in bed hurt too much to sleep. My dad called some of his buddies and got her a vaporizing weed pen to help her with the pain and with her appetite. She tried it but it mostly gave her anxiety and made her sleep a lot, except for one night when it helped her to eat a grilled cheese.
A few more days passed, and the side of her face went numb. All the while the esteemed kidney cancer doctor — the one who was supposed to save her — was on spring break with his family. The plan was to start her aggressive treatment as soon as he returned.
By that time, however, the numbness in Karen’s face had progressed into loss of feeling in her tongue and it began affecting her speech. When she talked, it sounded like her tongue was too big for her mouth. The doctors instructed her to check herself into the hospital. Given that she was a self-proclaimed psychic — a moon woman — and given that her body was completely falling apart, she may have known that she would never come home from the hospital, or maybe she didn’t.
In the first few days she was admitted, she was subject to radiation treatments to try and shrink the tumors at the base of her skull that were affecting the nerves in her tongue. Her team hoped to at least minimize those tumors so she might be able to talk and eat, but it didn’t help much. She had my mom take a picture of her while she had her head strapped into this space age looking radiation machine. She may have thought it was funny or she may have just simply wanted someone to take a picture of her. She always loved to be the center of attention. It is very likely that this picture was the last one taken of her.
Her husband Ed and their children – my uncle and my cousins – tried to keep their lives in some order: running a business, going to high school, finishing college. The select few people who she allowed to witness her increasingly dire state took shifts at the hospital so they could be there with her and oversee her care. Over the two weeks that she was in there, I only went to see her once, despite having lived only ten minutes away. I worried about intruding on her space, the room she was trapped inside of. But I had visions of running there and hugging her and telling her how much she meant to me, which is something I often regret not doing. I visited her one Sunday surrounded by an uncomfortably large group of family members in her tiny room. We made small talk in hushed voices while my mom gave Karen a sip of some juice that she had bought for her. As Karen sucked some of it down with a straw and in turn coughed it up, gurgling with what little use of her tongue she had left, we all pretended like we didn’t notice. We stole inconspicuous glances in her direction as we talked. But she knew we heard her choking as my mom grabbed her drink and tried to help her get her breath back.
She made a semi-audible comment about how everyone was staring at her and we turned away further, chatting amongst ourselves to be polite, pretending this was all normal – and that our beloved, marathon running, Crossfit-obsessed, karaoke singing, champion of a woman was going to be okay in the end. Our visit didn’t last long. This was her world now, this little hospital room with a view, and though we could come and go she couldn’t and we needed to respect her privacy. She sat on the edge of her bed in her hospital gown with Nike running socks on as everyone lined up and gave her a hug, one by one, telling her that we loved her. I stared at her feet and they looked so normal, so youthful and sporty — the feet of someone who was healthy and not about to die.
When it was my turn to give her a hug, she looked right into my eyes as I reached for her. It wasn’t the playful, adoring look that she had always given me but a gravely serious one — her blue eyes were pleading. In that split second, I felt like she showed me a glimpse of her soul – a soul whose vessel was rapidly sinking. Her body was failing her and she was helpless. I thought of a deer in the headlights. Karen was suddenly painfully vulnerable – not so different from the child I had once been in her home. The room cleared and I lagged behind. Desperate for something more to say, I told her I would visit her in the next few days. I never did.
The following Friday, exactly one month after Karen was diagnosed with cancer, she died surrounded by her three kids and her husband. My moon sister had left the earth in one moon cycle. No longer could I expect that anything steady in my life was going to persist like I expected it to; no longer could I count on things to stay the same as they were–except for the moon.
Rachael Wiggins is an artist living in Portland, Oregon. Though she is an Oregon native, she spent her college years studying fine arts at the University of San Francisco. Rachael loves to travel and being outdoors. She and her girlfriend devote much of their time to creative endeavors, watching reruns of Friends on Netflix, and coddling a sassy chihuahua mix named Edie.
Accompanying Art: “Greenhouse Tub,” watercolor 2016, by Livien Yin