Less than a year ago my little sister, Kay, called me and asked me if I wanted to go see her and her family. It was almost Steve OG’s birthday and I’d been so busy at work that I was overdue a visit and said of course I’d come. She added she had something to tell me when I got there, but I didn’t think anything of it.
Seated at her dining table a day later, as the kids ran around the house, OG cooked in the kitchen, Kay and I chatted about everything and nothing when she said, “Ok, are you ready?”
I slapped my hand on the table and laughed. “I know what it is,” I said, thinking back to the times OG had called me to proudly, and annoyingly, tell me he had got her pregnant. “You’re gonna have another baby!”
“No,” she said. “I’ve got cancer.”
I was stunned. Then I got up and held her.
“No.” I squeezed her hard. “Not my little sister.”
The next few months were tense. Covid restrictions meant our “gatherings” were limited to video calls, and because Kay’s immune system was weakening we had to be very careful about who could see her in case we put her health in more danger. So every day, when I made my lunch, I would video call her. It would become her daily “cookery show” and she would smile the smile she always smiled when she saw me. Because no matter the stupid and idiotic things I had done through our lives, she loved me because I was her big brother.
Then one day she called me in tears. She had cut all her hair off because of the chemotherapy she was having.
“How do I look?” she sobbed.
“You look like my beautiful little sister,” I said, and she smiled the smile.
And when she hung up I cried.
Kay updated all of us frequently through group messages or family video calls which always ended in tears of joy and laughter as we pulled together and did what all families do in times of need. If she was home or in hospital we would call, and the cookery shows would continue.
And then one evening, just before I was to go to work, my tablet lit up for a group video. I don’t remember much about that call, but it was short, the word “incurable” was used, and when everyone hung up I screamed, broke things, went to work and yelled at people who probably didn’t deserve to be yelled at. I was a hand grenade waiting to go off.
And after the bombshell of the “incurable” call I didn’t think things could get worse, but two months later came the “terminal” call, and things got worse.
Kay’s body failed as cancer ravaged her, but she kept smiling, and she didn’t hide from her illness or from my stupid questions.
“How long do you have left?” I’d ask.
“Months,” she said.
And months became weeks.
And weeks became days.
OG and Kay decided she should spend her last time at home with her family and not in a hospice, and her bedroom became a parade of different kinds of nurses filing in and out every day. And between them all we visited as often as we could, talking to Kay in the times she was awake, or laying with her when she slept. And she slept more and more.
The last words she said to me were, “I love you, Jody. I’m so sorry.” Because that’s who she was — always worrying about others, wanting to make sure we were alright. She would constantly ask me if I had someone I could talk to, because she didn’t want me being alone, and I would tell her that my problems paled into insignificance compared to hers, and she would still say, “I need you to be OK.”
One of the last times I saw her we were alone in the house. She was asleep on her side, facing me as I sat on the floor next to the bed, trying to hold it together.
She woke up.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“What are you doing here?” I asked and she smiled the smile.
“It shouldn’t be you,” I said, “it’s fucked up, but I always believed I would get some shitty disease. I figured I could try and handle the situation by writing about it. I would’ve written a book or something…”
“You won’t get it, Jode,” she said.
“You don’t know that.”
“You won’t,” she said. “You’re unkillable.”
“Like a cockroach?”
“I wouldn’t put it like that,” she said. “It’s more of a superpower.”
“I don’t want this power.” I took her hand. “I want you to have it.”
But she wouldn’t take it from me.
Kay Leslie O’Grady 1978-2021.