Thursday, January 6, 2011

Go to the Devil!

Note to self: Never write a blog after a three-day migraine. The
world is an infinitely better place when your head isn’t pounding.

It also helps to have a friend like Peg Ley. Wise and comforting, my high school typing teacher has always been an icon to me - and to about a million other former students as well. I visited her a few nights ago, snuggling into the deep leather comfort of her living room sofa with a cup of hot tea to boot. Peg is much the way I imagine Mom might be had she lived - ageless, beautiful, nurturing.

In spite of losing her husband and best friend of more than 60 years last May and suffering a heart attack herself, Peg refuses to be unhappy.

"How do you do it, Peg?" I asked her not long ago.

"Every day," she said with simple but eloquent resolve, "I choose to be happy."

Someone once said when you leave the Ley house, you always feel better than when you came. I departed from Peg’s house that evening feeling loved and contented. It didn’t hurt either that my sister Mary brought over chicken lasagna after I got home. Steaming, fragrant and brimming over, that lasagna spoke to me. It spoke to Tommy, too, who was still home from school on Christmas break. We looked at that beautiful pasta. Then we looked at each other.

"We have to save some for Dad," I said faintly.

In the same second, we tore into that lasagna as if it was our Last Supper. Tommy could easily have inhaled the entire pan, aluminum and all. I could have, too, for that matter. But Tommy’s a 280 pound offensive tackle. I was doing my best, however, to match him pound for pound on Mary’s lasagna.

Mary lingered for a moment before we devoured her dish.

"Have you heard any thing about your surgery date?" I asked.

"No," she waved her hand dismissively. "I’ve practically forgotten about it."

That’s Mary for you. Unlike the rest of us, she’s never once stewed about her annual mammograms.

"Who ARE you?" I once said in exasperation after she nearly forgot to schedule a mammogram. "How is it that you never worry about this?"

She was genuinely surprised. "Isn’t that why we have mammograms?" her eyes widened. "So that we can catch any thing early?"

To this day, I fail to comprehend that wise and sensible logic at all, and so do the rest of my sisters.

"I’ve just been in the hospital a few more times than all of you," Mary shrugged. "Things always work out."

It’s true. Mary started out her infant life with a prolonged stay in the hospital. When she was 36 hours old, her obstructed infant bowels required immediate surgery. It was a long time before she came home to us, and I remember falling in love with her the first time I saw her nestled in my mother’s arms. With scads of soft brown hair, she was tiny, beautiful and perfect in every way.

We teased her all her life that she was Dad’s favorite. But I think it was true. Dad was very protective of his little daughter who’d struggled so valiantly to survive her first week of life. In fact, we were all protective of our little Mary.

"I know I’m younger than she is," my sister Terri once told me, "but I always worry about Mary!"

Endless bouts with her sensitive kidneys sent Mary to the hospital several times, and I know my mother always feared Mary would be frail forever.

But she grew up into a beautiful, poised young woman with the carriage of a queen. She and her husband raised three gorgeous daughters, all who look uniquely like Mary and walk with the same regal bearing.

Often, we’ve been tricked into being a little overprotective of Mary. But there is not a stronger, more competitive girl in the world. I’ve been humiliated many times on the tennis court by my little "fragile" sister. In high school, she and a group of feisty, determined little girls, who still remain close today, managed to snare the school’s first state championship volleyball title.

And it was that same grit that helped her survive our mother’s death. Mary was 15-years-old when Mom died, and without complaint, she stepped into the role of chief cook and bottle washer.

"Little Mother," Mom tenderly murmured from her sick bed as Mary prepared meals and cared for our youngest siblings. The shy little dark-eyed girl who always hovered so close to Mom became my mother’s primary nurse. She bathed her, fed her, soothed her and often climbed into bed to hold her.

After Mom died, Mary mothered my two little brothers, Tom and Jeff, and became a pillar of strength for my grieving father. In the meantime, though, she was determined to be happy. Resuming her life at school, she enjoyed her friends more than she ever had before. And with that determined "Go to the Devil!" look in her eye that I knew so well, she earned a state volleyball championship gold medal.

My good friend Peg Ley and my little sister Mary are very much alike. Refusing to surrender to grief or worry, both choose to be happy. Every day, Peg chooses to attend a grief support group, climb on her treadmill, and engage with her legions of friends.

And my sister Mary, joyful and serene, nevertheless confronts the enemy, breast cancer, with the same steely look reserved for every opponent she’s ever faced on the other side of the net.

"Go to the Devil!" it says.

And I feel sorry for the Devil.