New Year; Old Family

Also remember, sisters make the best friends in the world. 

-Marilyn Monroe

Last evening, we had a family Zoom call. A narrowed-down version at that because we are numerous, scattered, and some of us are not capable of participating. It was my sister Margarita’s birthday, who was born New Year’s Eve, much to my father’s delight, because as he explained to me, he would get an additional tax deduction. We have a way of doing these things. There is no greater gift in life than the birth of a child. Why think of tax deductions?

For as long as I can remember New Year’s has been a double celebration for me. There is the phone call to my sister, followed by whatever party is brewing in whatever town I find myself in. Last night it was a special joy, because my sister Cari arranged for the rest of the Zoom participants. I anticipated chaos, because most Garrigas are avid talkers and poor listeners, but order was maintained, and we did a lot of catching up.

Once we ran past midnight Spanish time, we declared an end to the meeting, so that the USA family could start their celebration preparations. We are renting an apartment that has a nice Bose sound system. Phyllis and I stretched out on the sofa; we decided that we needed to veg for an hour, until the noise from the fireworks outside subsided. We downloaded Days of Future Passed, our favorite “album,” and we left each other to our own memories.

I thought about my sisters. My older sisters are five and three years older than I am. We were true siblings, but there was enough of a gap between me and my older sister that she mothered me a bit. They did me a great favor because they were excellent students. My teachers were grateful to have another Garriga in the classroom. In a way it was unfair to my classmates because there is something about familiarity that makes it easier for human beings to relate to each other.

Margarita came a bit less than 12 years later. I have always felt that I am half father and half brother to her. By the time Cari came around I was almost ready to leave for med school, so she did not get that much advice from me. As much as we root for each other, we have a limited database of interaction with each other. Cari has not seen me at my worst.

Four sisters; four different relationships. There are times that we remember different versions of the same event. Our father was much stricter with the first three than he was with the last two, but our mother ran interference for the first three much more frequently than she did later. We grew up to be quite different from each other, yet a bond remains, deep; solid; unconditional. We have done well.

Many years ago, Margarita called me up a few days after she delivered her second child.

“I have no feeling below my waist.”

She had experienced back pain when she was in medical school. She was seen by several physicians. A CT scan was done (No MRI in those days). At some point she was given pain pills and was sent to a psychologist. She was told that deep inside she did not want to be a doctor. That she had opted for a medical career because we had such a strong bond, that she felt obligated to follow in my path.

Her pain did not improve. Over several years she learned how to function while in significant distress. She finished med school, had two children, and was accepted at the prestigious NIH Immunology program (the same one that Tony Fauci has led for over forty years).

I knew that my sister had been her own person from the day that she could talk. I was as frustrated as she was by the lack of a diagnosis. When I received her call it all made sense.

This is an emergency. You need an MRI.

The MRI technology was brand new. Very few places had machines. The waiting lists were long.

“I know. I called the hospital. They said it would be two weeks.”

That is horse manure. This is an emergency. You need the test now.

“I Know. I called them again. I still need to wait.”

I could not understand why the foremost medical institution in our country was offering that advice.

Call them again. Tell them that your brother is a doctor, and your sister is a lawyer. That both of us will be there in the morning to look at the MR.

They did the MR that evening. She had a huge spinal cord tumor. In all likelihood it had been there for years.

The next morning, I hopped on a plane to go to DC. I clearly remember that there was snow on the ground, an unusual happening for the city and the time of year. I went straight to the hospital. When I walked into her room, carrying my suitcase, I was greeted by her smile. An expression of simultaneous joy and relief that I have never seen again. It still chokes me up when I think about it.

The surgery took over twelve hours. More than a dozen units of blood. I stayed with Margarita’s husband during that time. By late evening we were the only souls left in the OR waiting room. There is only so much that you can put into a conversation with anyone. Still, we talked the whole time. We became brothers that day.

By the time the surgeon came to talk to us, the Garriga household had descended onto Margarita’s small penthouse in suburban Maryland. My parents and sisters came to help. The baby and his older sibling were my mother’s job. My father bought groceries. My sisters cleaned, and babysat, and kept the household in an upbeat mood. I slept on the floor under a stairwell. We managed somehow.

A few days later, when the surgeon came by to discharge her, most of us were in the room. I introduced them to the man who had saved our sister.

My father, doctor Garriga. My mother, doctor Garriga. My sisters, doctors Garriga. It would have been comedic if it were not such a fine tribute to the job my parents did.

Last night we did not bring up any somber thoughts. Margarita’s sons are successful. She has three grandchildren: a fourth one due in February. I had not seen them for a year. We talked to two nieces and a nephew; they have gorgeous, bright children that make your heart ache, because you so badly want to hug them. Cari did great as the MC. We laughed a lot.

New year. Old family. We talked about how we need to have THE big reunion once the plague is over. A bittersweet moment for the old man in me. I understand that someday soon THE big reunion will be my last. Which I am perfectly OK with.

We cannot live with our siblings forever. It would not be healthy, and we would probably end up resenting them after a few days. Yet these moments do a lot for bringing meaning into our existence. To see the new links that have been added to our family chain. To understand how the pandemic, a horrible tumor, or anything else that life throws at us can be dealt with when we come together in a common cause.

To feel deep inside us that sisters make the best friends in the world.

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