It was December of my sixth grade year, and Mom wanted Quinn and me to run in the “Reindeer Run” — a one-mile “fun run” for kids. Quinn was an athletic, gorgeous, golden-haired nine-year-old; I was her stumpy, awkward-footed older sister. While I was twenty months older, Quinn had always been skinnier, just as strong, and nearly as tall. It was a no-brainer who should be running in front.
Yet on this sunny December day, my sister found herself doubled over after a mere five minutes of jogging. Mom and I exchanged a glance — where was the girl who clambered up doorframes and ate sugar straight from the packet? Where was my energetic little sister? I didn’t know it then, but this was the first sign that my family dynamic was about to change. In a month, my sister would be diagnosed with a brain tumor.
In my experience with my sister’s illness, I don’t know that I learned anything too different from anyone else — though I have my own story to tell. One lesson that I have had to repeatedly learn over the past six years is that, as it was put by B.C. Forbes, “Jealousy… is a mental cancer.” Even though Quinn has had to endure six brain surgeries, memory loss, impaired vision, learning disabilities, and countless other side effects, I have been jealous of her just as many times as she has been to the doctor. Relatives we had never met came out of the woodwork, sending money, gifts, and cards that were addressed to her nine times out of ten. People at church, school, people I babysat for, people I hardly even knew all seemed to have a newfound reason to talk to me — about my sister. When Quinn was home from school because of chemotherapy and wanted something, all she had to do was ask, and she received.
I knew deep down that she was suffering from things I would never know the magnitude of, yet jealousy swelled inside me. While I was in no way ignored by my friends and family during this time (all were very supportive), I wanted the attention Quinn got — minus the whole “head about to explode” thing. Yet at some point, when I was feeling sorry for myself, it dawned on me that no matter what people gave Quinn, no matter what material items she now possessed, no matter how focused the spotlight now was on her, she would have traded it all to have the one thing I still took for granted: my health. I realized that the jealousy I felt inside was unhealthy, both for my own sanity and for my relationship with my family.
While the jealousy never left me, and even lingers to this day, I have learned to fight this mental “cancer” by giving to my sister. Yes, giving her the very thing everyone else was giving her — attention — is what has helped me to overcome my jealousy, because it made me realize that she deserves what she is given. This is probably the most important advice I could have been given six years ago: “Yes, you will be jealous. No, life isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean you can’t overcome your jealousy to be there for your sister.”
I learned that life isn’t always going to be about me, and I am a better person for that. A few years ago, when Quinn was taking a chemotherapy drug that made her tired and nauseous, she, Mom, and I were on our way to one of my favorite places: The North Carolina Renaissance Festival. We were almost there when Mom and I heard a noise: Quinn was about to blow banana chunks all over the back-seat. We pulled over into someone’s private drive, which featured, among other high-class things, a flock of chickens pecking about. Immediately after hurling, Quinn argued that we needed to go to the Festival because I really wanted to. I argued back, “No, you don’t feel well!” In addition, Quinn had thoroughly banana-chunk-ified her jeans, so we were going to head back home for the day, but, for whatever reason, somebody wanted us to be at that Festival because Mom unearthed a pair of sweats from the back of her cluttered car. Quinn changed in the driveway while Mom stood in front of her. I stood guard against the scrappy chickens.
It ended up working out, but later that night, Quinn told me how much it meant to her that I was willing to give up my yearly smoked turkey leg because she didn’t feel well. It was her appreciation for my actions that made me realize her guilt at being the reason I had to give things up, whereas I always felt guilty for being able to do things she couldn’t. This was another important thing I realized during my sister’s illness.
My sister is the kind of person I try to emulate, and I hope (one day) my children will, too. If I can instill in my kids one-tenth of the courage and love their Aunt Quinn has shown me, I will consider my life a success. This is how I hope to use what I have learned during this experience for the service of a better world — I aspire to be a living example of what my sister has taught me. I also think that because of my experience over the past six years, I have something a lot of adults wish they did — the ability to empathize with people who are going through difficult situations. After watching my family struggle through many tough times, I have realized that you don’t need to know what to say — you just have to say something.