By Gina DeNicola
As I sat in the airport waiting for my connecting flight, I leaned against the wall and closed my eyes. Mexico is my final destination with my baby sister. I took a deep breath because that’s what they tell you to do to relax. I was sitting right next to a pizza place, and all I could smell was pizza, and the smell instantly brought me to 1970 something. It’s a Sunday, and we walk into my Grandmother’s house and the smell of tomato sauce, meatballs and garlic fill my mind. I kept my eyes closed and transported myself to her kitchen and all the comfort that came with those familiar smells. I had to open my eyes for a second to make sure I was still in Chicago, then I closed my eyes again, and the smells from the pizza place brought so many memories flooding into my mind.
Like most people I adored my grandparents. My grandmother was a nervous person but would always say little things that have stuck with me all my life. Like the one time when I lived in Pennsylvania and I took her to the hotel where I worked. It was a beautiful stone building built in 1901. As we were walking around the grounds and looking at the back of the building with the ivy climbing along one side of the building, I asked my grandmother if she thought it was pretty. “No Gina, all that ivy, no matter how pretty you think it is, that is how the rats climb into your room.” To this day I still love the sight of ivy growing on a stone building, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I looked extra close to see if I could spot those rats. Another one of her famous sayings was “Tables are for glasses, not asses” she would shout that at us when we would sit on her kitchen table. Or when I was going through my first divorce, and I was worried because I was certain at 29 with a three and four-year-old in tow I would never find another husband. She gave me a hug and said: “Don’t worry Gina, every pot has a lid, you just haven’t found yours yet, but it is out there.” She was right, and most of her sayings proved to be true, which is why I still look for those rats, I’m sure they are there climbing into open windows on a summers night.
My grandfather was the opposite from my grandmother, he wasn’t nervous at all and never seemed to have a worry in the world, which is saying a lot because he had a stroke when I was about two years old that left him paralyzed on his right side and also affected his speech. I can remember the first thing I would do when I walked into my grandparent’s house was to take a deep breath and smell the sauce and meatballs and then run and find my grandfather who was almost always sitting at the head of the dining room table in front of the china cabinet. The chair in front of the china cabinet was important because in the bottom of the china cabinet was where my grandfather kept his candy stash. My sisters and I would make a beeline to my grandfather, kiss him on the cheek and then he would look both ways to make sure my mother was nowhere in sight and quietly open the cabinet door. We could grab as much candy as we could carry before my mother would round the corner. My grandfather would always yell at my mom when she told him no more candy and as an eight-year-old, that was almost sweeter than any candy.
My grandmother was the first person in my family to die, and it was a hard thing for me. I was lucky that she got to meet my son when he was born, but by the time my daughter came around, she was already gone. At my grandmother’s funeral, there is an image burned into my brain. Someone had wheeled my grandfather up to my grandma’s casket. He was determined to stand out of the wheelchair for what we all thought was to give my grandmother a final kiss. Instead, he tried to get into the casket with her. It was the most painful, yet overwhelming demonstration of love I had ever seen. From that moment that was the kind of love I have looked for, and I believe have found in my husband.
Sitting on the airport floor, I opened my eyes and realized I had tears streaming down my face; I missed my grandparents. I hate that my sister has cancer. And at that very moment, I hated the smell of pizza, which if you know me, you know that pizza is my most favorite food group. I’m scared for my sister, and I am forced to be brave. That’s what the big sister does, she’s brave for all her other siblings, but I am currently crying in an airport all over my laptop. I wish my grandmother were here with her little gems of wisdom, and I wish my grandfather were here with his big laugh and handful of candy. I wish cancer weren’t a thing, but it is, and I’m off to help my baby sister search out some answers, and we will be brave together.
I am brave! After all, I have two bracelets that say I am, I have people tell me I am all the time, I have kids who believe me to be brave, but the morning I had to climb onto the shuttle bus I wasn’t so sure that was the case. However, I climbed into the hotel shuttle bus that was going to take my baby sister and me into Tijuana to the clinic anyway. I had my brave face on for her, but inside I was screaming “It’s Tijuana for God sake get the heck off this shuttle while you can!!! I couldn’t tell if my sister was screaming the same thing inside her mind, but I was too afraid to ask. So I took my seat, held my sister’s hand and held back my tears. Something inside my head said, “you were the one who wanted an adventure, so here you go, a Tijuanan adventure!” I distinctly remember saying “screw you” to whoever was occupying my brain.
As we rode to the border, I realized my sister really is the brave one here, not me. She is calm, matter of fact and, well, brave. I told myself to put on my big girl pants and be brave too, you are the big sister for crying out loud.
The clinic wasn’t what I was anticipating. The shuttle driver stopped in front of a big metal gate, that very much said “Stay Out” and honked the horn. A little man came running out of a little shack and unlocked the gate and let this van full of people in varying stages of sickness into a large round courtyard. The first thing you see is the big white building with its two story wood entry door and a bird cage that was the size of my bathroom at home. This “bird cage” was home to 70 parakeets. I knew there were 70 parakeets in that “cage” because the man who was in charge of getting all the people their hospital gowns, was also the caretaker of the parakeets. As you waited for the results of your blood work, you could sit on this balcony and look over the city of Tijuana. The air was surprisingly clean, and the sun was warm and as we sat on that balcony with the slight breeze blowing, I knew my baby sister was going to be OK. The Doctors at this clinic had encouraged her to go ahead with the double mastectomy in addition to their tonic and supplements, and that made me feel less like we were in for a science experience and my sister’s comment of “throwing everything I can at it” made sense at that moment.
In the end, Mexico was an interesting adventure. We laughed, we walked 5 miles (well 4.5, but why be so technical) around the zoo and saw the elephants playing, we had spirited debates about traditional medicine versus holistic medicine and we laughed some more. We were nosey and ventured into parts of the clinic that we most certainly were not allowed. In another life the clinic served as a drug lord’s mansion and how could we NOT snoop around and we are our mother’s daughters who were taught to always snoop around when you can. But most importantly we, in those sunny hours waiting on blood work, agreed to respect each other’s opinions.
Through this brief journey of having a sister with breast cancer, I have learned a few things. First, it’s her journey, and she has a right to travel it any way she sees fit. It is not my place to direct her journey, but to be supportive of her journey and while it is incredibly easy for me to type that, it is not so easy to practice. I found myself on a few occasions wanting to direct her right past that bird cage, out the gate and away from Tijuana, but I had to correct myself. Secondly, I love my baby sister more than anything and these few days we had fun, there were no tears, there was great food, there was the zoo, and most importantly there were plenty of laughs. I can’t predict the future, (even though I had dreams on this trip that I was going to school to learn) this adventure will have lasting effects on me, and they will all be of the good kind. It was a time that two sisters had the undivided attention, support and love of each other.
After a comedy of errors trying to return the rental car at 5:00 in the morning BEFORE COFFEE, we stood at the airport shuttle line. We had just learned we were on different shuttles and had to say goodbye. I hugged my baby sister with all I had as if to send some sort of big sister protection telepathically and as I walked to my shuttle bus, I wiped a single tear from my eyes. I felt that quite possibly my baby sister is braver than I and finally I could complete a post without wiping my computer clean from the tears.
Gina DeNicola is a former Bakery owner, always a baker. Trying to find the meaning of life through flour, sugar and eggs.