I’ve just finished reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, an author whose books I’ve been disappointed by in the past. Not this one. It’s been out for years now and I was actually encouraged to read it by friends before Austin was even born. Then my mom read it following Austin’s first round of treatment and she encouraged me not to read it, thinking it would touch too close to home.
But I am not one to shy away from delving right into a subject, even a painful one, plus my curiosity was piqued, so I finally picked it up at the library and, well, I’m glad I did. There is something amazingly universal about parenting a sick child. It makes me really really want to get my book out there into people’s hands. Not that it’s some self-help miracle or how-to survival guide. But just that I know it will connect with readers, those with sick children and those without. It humanizes an experience that can be so terrifying and overwhelming that most people would rather just push it out of the way and ignore it. These kind of stories (my true one and Picoult’s made-up one) force people on the outside to see and feel what it’s like on the inside, and I think that’s a good thing. It gives us all a sense of empathy and understanding that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
My Sister’s Keeper is a fictionalized account of a teenage girl who’s had a rare form of leukemia for most of her life. It focuses in large part on her younger sister, who was specifically conceived to be a genetic match in order to donate cord blood and then bone marrow and eventually, as the book opens, a kidney, in order to save to her older sister’s life. (In reality, even a perfectly matched sibling cannot donate a kidney under the age of 16.)
The book jumps back and forth between the points of view of both parents, the healthy sister, the older brother and a few other characters. This is hard to do well, but it is done very very well in this instance. I was struck by the fact that when I was reading anyone else’s point of view, I strongly disliked the mother — she was blinded by the task of saving her one daughter, at the expense of her other children, herself and her marriage. She was overpowering and single-minded and, well, not very likable. But when I was reading her parts, I got her completely. I agreed with everything she felt and most of what she did.
Which is sort of scary, because she made a lot of really obvious mistakes, like completely ignoring the needs and desires of her other kids. She could not see beyond each immediate health crisis and I think the book serves as a serious warning to parents against such a narrow-minded approach to anything.
But, still, I get these parents. They are us and we are them, in so many ways. When faced with yet another pending crisis: “And yet — like always — you figure it out; you manage to deal. The human capacity for burden is like bamboo — far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”
And this one, as they’re slowly (or quickly, as it turns out) realizing that their daughter has relapsed: “It takes only thirty seconds to realize that you will be canceling all your plans, erasing whatever you had been cocky enough to schedule on your calendar. It takes sixty seconds to understand that even if you’d been fooled into thinking so, you do not have an ordinary life.” Sixty seconds, and, whoosh, you do not have an ordinary life. No matter how badly you want it.
And in one of the many moments when their daughter is on the verge of death and the husband, like Mark has done with me, tries to gently but firmly prepare the wife for what he sees as inevitable. And she says, “She isn’t going to die,” and he says, “Yes, she is. She is dying,” and the wife responds simply, “But I love her.” Like that’s enough. Like that one little reason, the thing that drives us all in almost every decision we make — how much we love our children — matters at all. It doesn’t matter, not a bit. It is completely irrelevant.
I read these books and I give myself over to them. I feel at once so relieved not to be those parents and so sorry that I am those parents. We are them, even when we don’t want to be. Different outcome (hopefully a better one), different parenting style (hopefully a better one), but we are all the same. We all just want to save our children. Because we love them.