When my baby sister, Whitney, turned 5-years-old – my mom threw her a birthday party. Being about three years older, I knew my sister and her friends would stalk me around the house and want to be in all my “big girl” stuff.
I lamented this to my mom who said flatly: “Erica, if you’re the big girl – act like it.” Within a few hours, I had filled the house with big pink balloons and girls in cute little party dresses showed up to celebrate my little sister.
But one little girl stood out like a princess among paupers. Becky walked into the house wearing a pink dress with flaxen blonde, curly hair and the brightest, biggest blue eyes cut like glass orbs from the ocean’s surface. And when she giggled, she lit up the room with her fearless embrace of happiness. She loved life with her whole body.
Whitney and Becky became friends in pre-school and stayed best friends throughout school. They talked about boys, borrowed my dresses, shared their deepest secrets, rescued a stray cat and pulled a series of toilet-paper pranks on each other’s houses that live in infamy.
After high school, Whitney joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego. Becky stayed behind in Fenton, moved in with a high school sweetheart and putzed around our hometown working and sometimes attending college.
One day, she was in her bathroom when one of her bright blue eyes closed shut on its own. When it flickered back open, she ignored it. But as the weeks wore on, the strange occurrence happened again and again.
The following month, Whitney went home for a reunion at our lakefront home. All their friends came to enjoy a beautiful Michigan summer day drinking, eating, telling stories and reminiscing about days gone by.
“So, I think something’s wrong with my eye,” Becky told Whitney. “I have an appointment with the eye doctor tomorrow.”
The next day, the optometrist examined Becky’s beautiful lense. He sighed: “Becky, nothing is wrong with your eye. I believe its neurological.”
She began doing research into what might cause something like uncontrolled muscle movements in her eye.
“I think I may have muscular dystrophy,” she told Whitney. “At least, that’s why I’m hoping.”
Weeks later, a neurologist examined scans of Becky’s 22-year-old brain and found a small tumor. The type of brain cancer was typical in juveniles and rarely seen in adults. It was possible she had the mass for many years and it just laid low. She began radiation right away.
The following month, I came home to visit my parents for a family reunion at the house. Becky stopped in for a visit while the house was momentarily quiet. The size-zero petite beauty showed some signs of the radiation: puffy face and dark under eye circles. But she spoke very matter-of-fact about the situation.
“I hate the puffiness,” she said. “I’m really tired too. I can’t imagine how exhausting chemo will be.”
That night, I went to a dive bar in Fenton (though I think they all qualify as such) and ran into so many fellow high school graduates. One girl graduated in the same year as Whitney and Becky; she asked if I knew about her diagnosis.
“Yes, she stopped by today and we talked,” I said. “Her spirits seem really high.”
She looked at me with a steady gaze: “It’s really bad, Erica.”
Six months later, I planned to come home for Christmas. While on the phone chatting with my mom about the details, she interrupted and said she visited Becky.
“I wouldn’t recognize her in a store,” she said. I felt dread wash over me and it returned as Whitney and I pulled up to her mother’s mobile home in Holly. The sharp winter air hit my face and froze my lungs with each breath. We stood outside listening to the sounds of Christmas music from within.
Becky’s mom, Gina, answered the door and immediately laid into Whitney for taking her “sweet, damn time getting over here. It’s not easy keeping Becky up.”
We walked into the living room and saw Becky laying helplessly in a hospital bed. Most of her blond curls were gone, her eye that kept closing had gone blind and her other eye could hardly focus on objects. She appeared to be about a size 16 and memories of her cute fashion sense became replaced by a sweat suit. Her breathing labored as she struggled to speak and fight against the urge to give in to her exhaustion.
Though we kept conversation light, the sadness hung in the room. A boy Whitney and Becky went to school with popped in for a visit and lifted the mood considerable. After an hour, we took a group picture – propping her up with our hands – and drove home to pick up the family for church.
The following winter, I planned to come home for the holidays and squeeze in my bridal shower with family. Updates of Becky’s progress changed every time I talked with my mom. The tumor shrunk, the tumor grew, the tumor’s almost gone – the tumor’s bigger than ever.
And while Whitney was deployed to Iraq, Becky asked us to keep information to her about her progress vague so she wouldn’t worry. We respected her wishes, but we knew Whitney may hate us later for not being more forthcoming.
The day of the shower proved to be the coldest day that winter in Michigan and being in California for six years – my blood thinned out to ocean mist. But family and friends showed up in fine fashion – even Becky. Gina wheeled her into the party, parked her at a table and I sat down for a good chat. Her giggle lit me up.
“I was thinking about making blankets for needy kids,” she said. “I sit all day anyway.”
Her mobility had returned some and she was going through physical therapy to regain her motor skills. She sat up, could stand at times, had lost some weight and spoke far better than the year before.
The next day, Gina and Becky came over for a visit at the house and exchange Christmas presents. She gave me a pink hat box filled with potpourri and a lottery ticket. I kept them both. We talked about the wedding in August and how they planned on attending. It filled me with such hope.
“I’m going to dance at your wedding,” she said. “That’s what I think about at physical therapy.”
Months later, Whitney called from Iraq in the middle of the night. I answered in a groggy state.
“Why won’t Becky talk with me long on the phone when I call?” she asked. “Gina jumps on and I never get to talk to her.”
The tumor grew to the point of pinching off her verbal abilities. Sometimes, her voice cut out on her.
Whitney hoped to be home by the beginning of August and had already bought a plane ticket to Michigan departing immediately after the wedding. The day of the wedding, I thought about my little blonde princess and how she wanted to be there.
The day we returned from our honeymoon, I called Whitney to pick us up as planned.
“I’m in Michigan,” she said. “Becky’s dying.”
A couple of days later, I popped into the office to pick something up and my cell phone rang. Brian handed it to me. It was Whitney; I didn’t want to answer.
“Becky’s gone,” she said. “It’s OK, Erica. She was in terrible pain at the end. She couldn’t speak, lost all her functions … she just shut down. I stayed with her until she was gone and waited for the authorities.”
Becky approved all her funeral arrangements and made one request that spoke to her quirky sense of humor.
“She made us play ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by Queen,” Whitney said. “She made me so mad. I’ll never be able to listen to that song again.”
She never has.
Losing her best friend at 24 changed Whitney immeasurably. She remains fairly broken-hearted and misses her everyday. A framed picture of them before Becky was sick still sits on Whitney’s desk – it’s the only framed picture of any friend she has.
Years after Becky died, Whitney faced some tough times and had a hard go of things when she left the Navy.
“You know, when I’m afraid – I think about all the things Becky never got to do and then I do them for her,” I told her. “She’d probably give anything to have your problems.”
Whitney thought for a moment and said: “You’re right. I never thought about it like that.”
Next month, I will visit my childhood home for the last time as my parents pack up what they want and discard the rest to live in Texas near my brother. It will be my first visit since I married, first visit since Becky died.
It’s hard to imagine home without her and that silly, chittering laugh. Of all the memories of her, I cherish my first of her most. I think of her as an eternal little girl – happy, healthy and living an inspiring life that would leave the world a better place.