When I was growing up, one of my favorite things was to play with my third sister, Katrin. Maybe because she was seven years younger than me, there was no rivalry or conflict. She was also preposterously cute. With her shiny black eyes, her shiny bowl haircut, and her rosebud lips, she was constantly attracting the attention of strangers, and once won a JCPenney photo contest that she hadn’t even entered. Because my mother was often busy with my youngest sister, Cindy, my second sister, Michelle, and I took turns taking care of Katrin.
I have great memories from those days. I was bossy and confident, and Katrin idolized her big sister, so it was a perfect fit. I made up games and stories, and taught her how to play jacks and Chinese hopscotch and how to jump rope double Dutch. We played restaurant; I was the chef and the waiter, and she was the customer. We played school; I was the teacher, and she, along with five stuffed animals, was my student (Katrin excelled at my courses). I held McDonald’s carnivals to raise money for muscular dystrophy; she manned the booths and collected money.
Thirty-five years later, Katrin and I were still close. The two of us were the most alike of the four sisters, at least on the surface. She and I both had two Harvard degrees (actually, she had three, because of her M.D./ Ph.D.), we both married Jewish men, we both went into academics like our father, and we both had two children.
A few months before Lulu chopped off her hair, I got a call from Katrin, who taught and ran a lab out at Stanford. It was the worst call I have ever received in my life.
She was sobbing. She told me that she had been diagnosed with a rare, almost certainly fatal leukemia.
Impossible, I thought confusedly. Leukemia striking my family—my lucky family—for a second time?
But it was true. Katrin had been feeling exhausted, nauseated, and short of breath for several months. When she finally saw a doctor, the results of the blood tests were unmistakable. In a cruel coincidence, the leukemia she had was caused by the very kind of cell mutation she was studying in her lab.
“I’m probably not going to live very long,” she said, crying. “What’s going to happen to Jake? And Ella won’t even know me.” Katrin’s son was ten, her daughter barely one. “You have to make sure she knows who I was.You have to promise me, Amy. I better get some pictures—” And she broke off.
I was in shock. I just couldn’t believe it. An image of Katrin at ten flashed into my head, and it was impossible to put that together with the word leukemia. How could this be happening to Katrin—Katrin? And my parents! How could they take this—it would kill them.
“Exactly what did the doctors say, Katrin?” I heard myself asking in a strangely confident voice. I had snapped into my big-sister, can-do, invulnerable mode.
But Katrin didn’t answer. She said she had to get off the phone and would call me again.
Ten minutes later, I got an e-mail from her. It said: “Amy, it’s really really bad. Sorry! I’ll need chemotherapy then bone marrow transplant if possible, then more chemo, and low chance of survival.”