Twink Macaraig (The Philippine Star) - July 19, 2016 - 12:00am

When I came into the world I had three sisters. I had no choice in the matter. They were older and bigger than me so if I had to pick one word to describe my sisters then, it would be bossy. That bossy-ness persists to this day, even though at the age of 12 I became taller than all of them; and even though a recently-discovered error in my birth certificate says I was born in 1954. (Our eldest, who’d long been perpetrating the scam that she is the baby of the family, flaunts the typo in support of her canard. But she mainly relies on magnanimity from our other siblings not to call her out on how she managed to also become younger than the rest of them. Pagbigyan ang matanda.)

With the domineering certainty that had  them dragging me down from the high-dive board in front of what I was sure was a snickering Polo Club crowd, or hauling me aside to stage-whisper “put on a bra” for the pimply visitor in the living room to hear, my ates are still barking orders: Stop drinking wine! Stop carrying such a big purse (this, as she takes the purse from me and promptly drops it)! Put your medical records in a bright colored envelope! Don’t go down stairs! (The words are intentionally separate. My older sister is of the belief that taking the stairwell from the 8th floor of Med City to the 3rd floor exerts a gravitational force on my spine strong enough to snap it.  Climbing up stairs, on the other hand, is more acceptable.)

In college, I chose my sisters. That is, I joined a sorority where members shared youthful romantic notions — of a Philippines better off without multinationals, of a UP that didn’t need money derived from tuition hikes, of you and a favorite brod.  After college, my sorority sisters and I were dispersed so widely across the spectrum spanning far Left and far Right that we had trouble recognizing each other in our occasional reunions. But with the likes and sunny emojis exchanged on social media, all seems well enough on that front.

When you have breast cancer, your sisters choose you. They hunt you down.

Before I had come to terms with my cancer recurrence, I was on a press junket to cover the Architecture Biennale in Venice. I was explaining away my back brace to my fellow press junketeers as a scoliosis-related thing (Zsa-Zsa Padilla ang peg) when this tiny woman introduced herself. “I’m Chit,” she said, with an oboe voice just like mine.

The elegant midget just somehow plunked herself beside me at every opportunity. At the airport on our interminable layovers, on the bus, as we waited for the speeches to begin, Chit Lijauco would pepper her small talk with references to her Stage 2 Her2+ diagnosis, how 1 Corinthians 10 6-13 got her through chemo, how her chic bob was just outgrowth from being a skinhead only months before.  She told these tales in the same, placid tones with which she described the state of the magazine industry or offered her opinion of the new President. I was hooked. I wanted that. Her peace. Her equanimity. To find out how to acquire them I had to confess. “Chit, I’m sorry I wasn’t more candid with you, but my back brace has nothing to do with Zsa-Zsa Padilla...”

Chit flashed me a faint I-knew-it smile before sending her husband off to rustle up two flutes of champagne. 

Thus was I welcomed into The Sisterhood of the Reveling Puns: Breast Friends. Bosom Buddies. I Can Survive.Kasuso (groan).

They reached out to me from all the proverbial walks of life and corners of the world. Many I knew from the first time I had cancer. Some I knew from several decades before (from our squealing you’d have thought we were discussing Leif Garrett). Most were complete strangers.

 But our connection is instant, perhaps born out of the peculiarities that distinguish us from other types of sisters.

We have our own kind of sibling rivalry.  A healthy “unhealthy” competition.

“I had a mastectomy.”

“I had a double mastectomy.”

“I had a double mastectomy. Then I had breast reconstruction. Then my implants exploded.”

“My breast cancer metastasized to my bones.”

“Mine spread to my bones and liver.”

“Mine started in one breast, spread to my bones and liver, and then a new primary cancer started in my other breast.”

 We have a weird schadenfreude thing going — we want our sisters to derive pleasure from our (greater) misfortunes. The underlying message: You-think-you-have-it-bad-well-I-have-it-worse-and-I’m-still-fighting-and-so-should-you!  We sisters have our own kind of bossy.

We might not know details of each other’s lives — though I did stumble across the fact that Chit’s real name is Ursula — but only sisters can fathom the pain, and how deep we need to dig to find meaning in it. And when we do, only sisters understand the profound joy, the immense gratitude that follow, indeed, that can coexist with the pain.

(Non-cancer warriors don’t get it. I don’t think even brother cancer warriors really do. They’ll quote their father quoting Gen. MacArthur and say things like, “Only those who are not afraid to die deserve to live.” And we sisters will give each other sideway glances and think, “Di ko yata na-gets yan.” It’s a guy thing.)

What are we grateful for? Each day.  And all that make each day wondrous — love, laughter, prayers, God’s grace. Books, beauty, medicine, the Internet. Family, friends, best friends, long-lost friends, children, grandchildren. And sisters who help show the way to be grateful, even for cancer.

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