On mornings when I don’t have to jump to the sound of the alarm, when I can lie in bed and wake up slowly, I sometimes think of times past. One morning recently, I woke up thinking about Rose, the older of my two sisters. I remembered the day, seventeen years ago when I knew I was going to lose her.
It was a typical bleak January day in New York, a day well-spent sitting by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate, but I had a mission in Manhattan. There was a scent of snow in the air as I boarded a Metro-North commuter train in White Plains. When it arrived at Grand Central Station, I blended into the echoing mass that flooded the main concourse. I’d made this trip countless times before when I worked in the city, but this day I was there for another reason. I was on my way to Mt. Sinai Hospital to join my family. Rose was scheduled for brain surgery that morning. She had been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor, but had chosen to have the surgery that a second team of doctors had offered as a remote last chance. They had made it clear that the prospect for recovery was not good, but Rose wanted that chance. We would be there to support her. The only way a family can get through something like this, is together.
I stopped at Zaro’s Bakery before exiting the station and bought a bag of warm bagels. I was cold. I was scared. I knew everyone gathered in the family comfort room at the hospital would be, too. Maybe warm bagels would help.
There are two years between my sister Eleanor and me, she’s the older. Though we were all in the same family, Eleanor and I lived very separate lives from those of our three much older siblings. Rose was so far ahead of us in age that she was always our older sister, never our childhood friend. We grew up not really knowing her. She was old enough to feel the full impact of the Depression. She worked as a seamstress to help support our struggling family while Eleanor and I struggled with the rules of grammar in Mrs. Babb’s elementary school class.
How we envied Rose’s social life. Awe-struck kids, we looked on as her friends gathered at our house to dress for weekend parties and do each other’s hair. Our role in preparing for the festivities was as errand girls, carrying messages between Rose and her girlfriends; we had no phone, a luxury at the time. The demands on us were especially heavy when a big event was coming up, like the New Year’s Eve formal when the dresses were long and the excitement palpable. “Run over to Helen’s and tell her to be here at eight o’clock. On your way back, stop at Millie’s and remind her to bring her curling iron tonight.” When the girls gathered, Eleanor and I watched as they got ready, wishing we could wear long dresses and go to the dance. We wanted so much to be a part of it. “Someday we’ll be dressing for dances, too,” Eleanor assured me.
So we watched, and we waited our turn. It never came. Pearl Harbor was attacked, World War II was declared, and the dancing stopped. Now Rose’s friends gathered at our house to knit socks and scarves for their boyfriends overseas. The dances never resumed. They were replaced with weddings for the lucky girls whose soldiers came home.
Rose did things for us, too. My mother put her in charge of our clothing alterations. This consisted mainly of re-sizing dresses and skirts that were bought for a plump Eleanor to fit a skinny kid when they were passed down to me. I hated those fitting sessions. I had to stand on a stool, perfectly still, with Rose on her knees before me, pins in her mouth.
“You’re gonna swallow them,” I’d say.
“Pull your stomach in!” she’d order, with a swat at my middle.
“Mom, Rose punched me.”
“Stand straight and listen to your sister.”
Rose was a talented seamstress. She could alter anything, no matter how difficult the task. I always hated sewing. The rite of passage from elementary to high school required the girls to sew their own graduation dresses. They had to be white and they had to be hand-sewn; machine stitching was not allowed. The sewing medal would be awarded to the graduate whose dress had the best hand-stitching.
I chose a delicate dotted-Swiss fabric and a McCall’s pattern because they were the easiest to use. I laid the material out on the dining room table and pinned the flimsy tissue pieces of the pattern to the fabric and cut around them. For weeks, following instructions, I put my dress together with painstaking, tiny hand stitches. When our dresses were finished, they were judged by a panel of teachers using magnifying glasses. They inspected the seams, consulted each other, then pronounced my stitches the best. I cried all the way home.
“Why are you crying?” my mother asked.
“I won the sewing medal.”
“Isn’t that good?”
She didn’t understand. My stitches were perfect, but the dress fit like a burlap bag. It was at least two sizes too big. I was afraid everyone would laugh when I went up for the award.” I should have made big ugly stitches,” I cried. “I never wanted that medal, anyway.”
When Rose came home from work that night, she set about fixing the problem. “Stop crying,” she said. “Put the dress on and get on the stool.” She pinned the dress into shape, then took a scissors and cut out the excess material, including the medal-winning stitches, replacing them with machine-made seams. On graduation day, feeling like a fraud, I marched up to the stage in my perfectly fitting dress and accepted the medal for stitches that no longer existed.
We all came through the Depression and The War, and Eleanor and I grew up along the way. The age gap between us and Rose closed. We were now three sisters, not two.
When I arrived at the hospital clutching my bag of bagels, Eleanor looked up, the fear on her face so unlike the smile she always had for me. Neither she nor I had wanted Rose to have this surgery. There was little hope it would make a difference in her original prognosis and she had suffered so much already. But it was Rose’s decision to make. Her adult children, a daughter and two sons, dreading what was about to happen, sat quietly. We waited, none of us speaking, just being there for Rose, and for each other. I felt the presence of other families who had sat in sorrow on these same wooden chairs in this dank room that offered no comfort. The bagels, untouched, grew cold.
When, at last, Rose’s gurney was wheeled down the long corridor leading to the Operating Room, we all walked beside it. Rose, sedated, couldn’t open her eyes. All the way en route to the OR we told her we loved her. She opened and closed her hand to tell us she knew we were there, she heard us. We dropped back when the orderlies asked us to, all but her younger son. He gripped his mother’s hand until an orderly made him release it by gently unfolding his fingers, one by one. Rose disappeared on the other side of the OR door. We were left standing there, hoping for a miracle, fearing there wouldn’t be one.
I would bring her flowers from Phil’s garden in her last days. She had survived the surgery but was sent home from Mt. Sinai Hospital to live out what little time she had left. I wanted her to have beauty in her life as she lay dying. She wouldn’t let anyone throw them out, no matter how wilted, until I came with more. One day, there was no one home when I arrived at her house. I sat on the steps outside for hours, daffodils and daisies drooping on my lap, until an ambulance pulled up at the curb with Rose in it. Eleanor, who always accompanied Rose to her treatments, told me later that her face lit up when she saw me.
Though those visits rang with laughter as we re-told childhood stories, they were in reality the saddest times the three of us had ever spent together. It was Eleanor’s fierce determination to brighten Rose’s last days that gave me the strength to get through them. Rose, always beautiful and rightly vain, removed her head scarf only for us, knowing Eleanor and I would see her beauty through her baldness.
For many years, Rose and I had lived separate lives. After I left home, we never lived in the same town again. I chose a life that was broader than the one she was happy in. But we came together before the end, and once again closed a gap that had kept us apart.
About Cathy Fiorello
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