Lila’s older sister was dying. Or rather, she was in hospice. The requirement for which, was only that it was possible Julia would die within the next six months. Lila took comfort in this; anyone could die within six months.
The social worker explained hospice services to Lila and her parents. He handed them a shoe box called a Comfort Pack, filled with morphine, antipsychotics, and Tylenol suppositories, for when it was too difficult for Julia to swallow. He wore eyeglasses that clasped open and shut across the bridge of his nose. He said it was always possible for six months to become years, sometimes patients just kept on re-enrolling. He said it as though hospice were like a cell phone plan or a gym membership that you could join or cancel at any time.
A tumor the size of a grapefruit was fixed along Julia’s spine. Two years earlier, the oncologist had compared it to a kiwi. Rounds of chemo could not stop its growth, which doctors continued to liken to fruits. Eventually, Lila could not walk through the produce section of a supermarket without having a panic attack. Everything became malignant.
Lila was about to turn thirty-three and worked as a librarian at an elementary school in Park Slope. She lived in a fourth floor walk-up with her boyfriend, whom she was not in love with, but knew would make a wonderful father. In the mornings before work, when Julia was not yet dying, Lila would lie in bed and browse Instagram, looking up periodically while Adam made and packed their lunches. The monotone of talk radio hummed from the kitchen as he wrapped turkey sandwiches in tin foil and poured homemade trail mix into Tupperware.
He was a science teacher at the elementary school where Lila worked. Sometimes Lila walked by Adam’s classroom and felt her chest swell as he gesticulated wildly to his students. They clapped their hands in awe and delight as a volcano of vinegar and baking soda erupted.
When they had first started dating and people asked Lila about Adam, she remarked that she was drawn to him because he was good. Friends said that Lila’s reasoning was rational and unromantic, but goodness was not to be taken lightly. Plus, Julia had liked Adam from the very beginning. They met for the first time a few months after her diagnosis, when her face was still round and lit, though her hair was thinning in patches. Julia refused to wear scarves or wigs—she had no interest in making her cancer more palatable for others.
Adam moved his hand gently along Lila’s back as he spoke to Julia. He neither avoided her illness nor romanticized her bravery, and mostly asked questions about her recent job as a therapist at a VA hospital downtown. “My father’s a vet,” he told her as he loaded lentils onto his plate. “I wish he’d been able to talk to someone like you.”
Months later, when Julia’s tumor was hovering somewhere between clementine and tangerine, Lila found herself spending long stretches of time fantasizing about the assistant principal. She thought about fucking him while she read Curious George aloud to her students, as she unpacked boxes of new chapter books. But she knew she had to repress or ignore these urges, because she could not actually imagine being with someone who did not know or love her sister.
Adam was from Maine and had come to New York a few years earlier for graduate school. He was 6’3″ and had a long, single scar running from his wrist to his elbow, the result of an ice skating accident when he was seven.
Not long after Adam arrived in New York, his parents had gotten divorced, and since then, he dutifully called his mother each night at 10 o’clock. Afterward, he practiced science experiments in the living room, facing the quiet glow of Sixth Avenue, depositing pennies in a glass of soda or gummy bears in salt water. When they had sex, Adam said Lila’s name as he was coming, his voice infused with gratitude.
Lila had spent her twenties dating men who only kissed her on the mouth as a precursor to sex, who were in synth pop bands and didn’t actually work, and who told her often—not unkindly—that they didn’t want to “give her the wrong idea.” And so when Adam appeared, she knew on some guttural level that she should be grateful for him. She imagined Julia chiding her for having doubts despite his clear devotion to her. It reminded her of senior year of high school, when she had only been accepted to her safety school—Hampshire—and decided she hadn’t wanted to go to college after all. You’re being crazy, Julia had said, from the leafy quad of her Ivy League campus. Don’t be a snob. It’s a perfectly good school.
Julia was older by three-and-a-half years, a high school senior when Lila was a freshman, and this dynamic had never quite shifted. Julia still chose the radio station when they were in the car together, picked the restaurants for dinner, and instructed her on which flowers to buy for their parents’ anniversary. She spoke with conviction about everything. You definitely need to break up with him; MFA programs are a total waste of money; spending $200 on fall boots is idiotic. Lila mostly deferred to Julia, sometimes resenting her sister’s certainty, that she never seemed to question any decision she made.
Throughout her illness Julia acted swiftly and decisively. Freezing her eggs immediately following the diagnosis and before the first round of chemo, which surgeries to have and which to avoid, and later, when to terminate treatment.
Julia said, “I want to die at home.” They were at the hospital on First Avenue, surrounded by walls and curtains that were varying shades of taupe. On the tray beside the bed were a foil container of Jello and a plastic pink dome covering soggy lasagna. Lila and her parents winced at Julia’s words. There was nothing murky to analyze. She was dying and she wanted to be home.
“OK,” Lila said, smoothing a packet of Equal between her fingers. “OK, so we’ll go home.”
Adam wanted to know how he could help. He arranged for a hospital bed to be delivered to the apartment. He wanted to know what else, but there was not so much to do anymore.
“Have him buy lots of Ensure and Pedialite,” her mother said. “She likes the vanilla Ensure, not the almond. We don’t want her to get dehydrated.”
“No, Mom. That’s not how this works, you don’t get it.”
It went against every human instinct to stop feeding Julia spoonfuls of yogurt, to not insist upon just one more sip of water, cupping a hand against her chin, so that it wouldn’t spill. A body needed to be nourished.
Lila thought about Manhattan hospitals on September 11th. She had read about the staff’s frenzied attempts to prepare for the survivors coming in bloodied and covered with soot, gasping for air. They waited and waited, bracing themselves for chaos that never came.
Lila sat with her sister, waiting for two men from the funeral home. Her mother was in the kitchen, on the phone with the rabbi. Her father had been in the bathroom for a very long time.
Lila thought of the way people said, She died and it was like I saw her spirit leave her body. It did not feel like this to her. Instead, it reminded Lila of when she and her sister were little and still shared a bedroom. Lila, picking at stickers that littered her bed frame, going on about the politics of second grade (Anna W took the lizard home over the weekend and nearly killed it! Sophie R cut off all her hair) while Julia drifted toward sleep, only occasionally murmuring responses. There was comfort just knowing she was there.
Now, Lila kissed each of her sister’s fingertips, cool and clammy. “I will be okay,” she said, repeatedly, as though Julia was worried.
Adam had come by the night before, after Julia had stopped eating and drinking. Lila did not want him to be there when it actually happened. But when she watched Adam say goodbye— stooping gingerly to kiss her sister’s forehead—she thought, I will marry him. No other scenario seemed plausible anymore. Maybe Adam would have an emotional affair, over email. She imagined him writing “Ever since her sister died, Lila is detached and far away. I love her but I don’t feel I have a partner.” He would find companionship elsewhere. The woman would sign her email thinking of you, xoxo.
But at the supermarket, Adam would know to head to the produce aisle himself. “Be right back,” he’d say, “meet you at the deli counter.”
At the funeral, Lila could not stop thinking about having a baby; a newborn to nurse, the delicate weight of a hungry, breathing creature in her arms. She was also preoccupied with a woman in the back, wearing a long floral skirt and Crocs. They were black, but still.
Lila stood next to Adam and tugged at the sleeve of his suit. She nodded in the direction of this lady in Crocs. Adam shrugged his shoulders as if to say, Who cares? We’re at your sister’s funeral. Julia would’ve cared, Lila wanted to say. Julia would’ve thought it was hilarious. And grotesque. Once, she broke up with someone for wearing Tevas on their third date.
These were the things Lila focused on at the funeral. Not her sister’s body being lowered into the ground or the clumps of dirt shoveled onto the coffin. She thought about the poor soul who was stupid enough to wear Velcro sandals on a date with her beautiful sister. She thought about fucking the assistant principal. Or Adam. Or a librarian from Seattle she’d met at a conference last summer. And she thought about giving birth, as if she did not do it right away, Julia would be inexplicably lost. She felt panic or acid rising from her gut. There was a parkway just outside the cemetery and the whir of traffic was growing louder. Someone was sobbing. The Rabbi closed her prayer book gently, said Amen.
Sasha Siegelbaum has worked as a progressive educator for 10 years. She graduated from Barnard College with a BA in Art and Art History and from Bank Street College of Education with a MS in Early Childhood and Childhood Education. She loves to draw and spend time with her magical son, Milo.
Kate Axelrod’s first novel, The Law of Loving Others, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, Lit Hub, and a variety of other publications. She is a social worker in Brooklyn.