Sister’s Keeper, ii (Juneteenth)

Note: This is the second entry in my series of posts about being with my sister through surgery and recovery this summer. If you missed it, check out Part One first.

My sister has been in surgery all day, and I’ve been keeping busy with magazines, crossword puzzles, and vending machine snacks. Earlier, a family in this large, crowded waiting room got some bad news. The women are sobbing, and a chaplain sits with the grandfather, talking quietly. It’s unnerving, this reminder of being in a hospital where births and deaths are the currency of everyday business.

At 4 p.m. the receptionist calls me up to tell me my sister’s room number now that she’s out of surgery. I’m thankful for the good news, but my prayers feel somewhat perfunctory – of course she’s fine, of course she’s a textbook case – as if smooth sailing were inevitable.

As if all it takes is waiting for everything to click into place.

On the elevator I text my parents to let them know she’s out of surgery and all’s well. My phone rings immediately; it’s my mom, asking if I’ve seen Amanda yet. Mom tells me to take deep breaths and prepare myself before walking into the room because she might not look good. Mom knows I have a tendency to faint at the thought of, well, anything medical. I wasn’t worried before, but now my pulse races and armpits sweat.

I find her room number and pause outside the curtain. When I walk in, nurses are arranging her tubes and wires. I dare to say hello. My sister’s head is wrapped tightly with a stiff, white gauze all around her face. Tufts of hair stick out. I don’t know quite how to act. She warned me beforehand that she’d come out bandaged up like a Civil War soldier with a head injury, but it’s somehow less funny now.

Her health insurance hasn’t approved the jaw replacement. They’ve fought her every step of the way, compounding the chronic pain with psychic pain and good, old fashioned stress. Just yesterday, nervous and fretful, she came very close to cancelling the procedure, for fear that she could never pay off the bills without insurance. I asked, “Can you stand the pain until the insurance comes through?” She tearfully said no. “Then I think you’re gonna have to take a leap of faith tomorrow.”

And that’s how tomorrow became today, a day that’s been anticipated for years. First came the pain, then the diagnosis, then getting braces on her teeth to prepare her jaws for surgery. When I first heard Amanda use the term “jaw replacement,” I was aghast. It sounded like something from a sci-fi novel. But it’s real, and for my sister it’s been a long time coming.

Today, after many years of suffering, she has new joints. Today is a turning point in her adult life after long-term chronic pain.

Today is June 19, Juneteenth. It’s the day when, back in 1865, Union soldiers landed in Galveston, Texas, bringing news that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved people of Texas had been freed.

Tragically, June 19, 1865, was a good two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect. For two and a half years people in bondage hadn’t yet heard that freedom was theirs. I want to tell Amanda, when she’s more lucid, about this date and what it means.

I think we both know that this day marks the start of her emancipation. In the case of people enslaved in Texas, heartbreakingly, years came between the proclamation and the emancipation. Two and a half years of life.

As my sister knows, sometimes decades pass by before you’re set free.


Amanda & me, 2000