Coping with cancer became part of our Catholic DNA.
It’s been said that every common thing elicits and supports a miracle. This is an idea I used to hold onto. I used to think that it galvanized my belief system. It didn’t. In fact, I think it may have done the opposite. It diffused it. There is no risk in seeing the ordinary as something special. There is no heavy lifting. No venture. Belief in miracles requires real faith. And real faith requires endurance. Bravery. Work. This is a story about all those elements. But at the core, it is just a story about a woman with cancer. The woman’s name is Mary Beth Carey and she was my older sister.
My earliest memories of my sister Mary were of laughter. The first year of my life I slept in a crib at the foot of my parent’s bed. But the moment I could slide out of it, I did so to amble over to Mary Beth’s room, where I would climb into bed with her. As a toddler I had a hard time with "r’s." So my older sister became "May." It stuck and I’ve called her that ever since.
May always had the gift to crack me up. She was a spot-on mimic. A natural ham. And loved an easy audience. So while most kids spent their early ages crying to sleep, I spent mine laughing to sleep with my sister May. This lasted until I was about three. By then, my sister Ann Marie was born and I was moved into my own room; a room that would quickly be filled up with boys.
Along with her humor, my sister had a number of other characteristics that she would carry into her adulthood. Not all of them great. She was stubborn as a grass stain and possessed my father’s volcanic temper. As a side dish to that, she had sense of revenge that Jigsaw would envy. She also moved at 110 miles per hour and had a penchant for clumsiness, often bumping into objects both stationary and moving. This would become harrowing later in life when she received her driver’s license.
However, it would be May’s better qualities that defined her. She always possessed an incredible, infectious life-force. She was fiercely loyal. Hugely generous. And most of all, exceedingly compassionate. She was just so kind to everyone. This led her to hundreds of childhood girlfriends that were a hodgepodge of cheerleaders, nerds, snobs and outcasts — and every one of them thought that she was their "best." May was not merely an inherently good person — she was ethereally good. It was a goodness that radiated from her. She was the closest person to the truth that I ever knew.
May loved life and lived it with abandon. In fact, everything she did, she loved. And her zest for life was never reserved for vacations, parties or outings. She treated even the most mundane tasks as something akin to epic. For May, a trip to Costco was as good as Club Med vacation. A rental from Blockbuster was as good as any Broadway play. And she would enjoy a crummy, local cover band as much as she would sitting fifth row for Bruce Springsteen. That was May.
May was quite the looker in her adolescence. I didn’t really know this until I reached high school. I went to Detroit Catholic Central, which was all boys and it was a well-known fact that the upper classmen there routinely beat up on freshmen. One time early in my first year, I was afraid to go to class because I had to cut through a wing where the juniors and seniors kept their lockers. A friend and I decided that we would just wait for the bell to ring and take the demerit, but one of my other classmates talked me out of it. He said, "Go ahead, they won’t touch you."
"Why not?" I wondered.
"Because your sister is pretty."
She was. Mary Beth was a tall, cinnamon-skinned beauty with big brown eyes and long legs. At the time, she was a junior at our sister school, Our Lady of Mercy.