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Commentary: A Family Affair

By Joan Worthington

Buffalo, NY – Donna and Debora were twins. They were also best friends. Both were large and rosy, energetic and strong. Both were single parents and they chose to live in the same apartment building where they saw each other daily and helped each other. An old photo on Donna's bedroom wall showed the two together as young women, arm in arm, smiling and absolutely identical.

Donna developed Lupus. Her body's immune system turned renegade and attacked her own body. Strong medications kept Donna alive but they also shriveled and emaciated her, twisted her fingers and thinned her black hair to wisps. She acquired a wheelchair and home nursing services.

Sister Debora remained healthy and vibrant, the poignant image of the former Donna. Debora came to help her sister every day. She did heavy housework, grocery shopping and cooking while trying to keep an eye on the playing children.

Neither sister spoke of seeing what might have been in her twin's face.

Donna's only child was about ten. The girl had her mother's name and the family called her "little Donna." She skipped school to stay with her mother, who was happy for company to fight the fear and loneliness. Donna was frequently ambulanced to the hospital. When her aunt could not go, Little Donna took the bus to meet the ambulance at the Emergency Room.

The child gradually became the mother.

Donna wanted a larger mattress in her bedroom so Little Donna could sleep with her. Instead of waiting for her sister, Donna asked her ten-year-old to help. Little Donna pushed the old mattress up against the wall to make room for the new one. The heavy mattress slipped from the child's hands and fell back onto her mother, knocking over the wheelchair with Donna in it. Donna bled profusely. The child ran from the apartment, sobbing for help and crying out "Oh what I did to my mother!"

Another hospital trip.

After her return home, Donna wanted to stay in bed most of the day. She developed pressure sores on her back from lying in one position for hours on end. Donna did not want to leave her family to go to a nursing home. The social worker was talking with the family about the situation when Little Donna turned with wide eyes and said, "My mother's backbone is coming through her skin!"

Not long afterwards Donna made her last ambulance trip to the hospital. After the funeral the attendees all gathered at Donna's apartment. On the memorial card was a photo of the young Donna looking strong and beautiful and looking just like her sister Debora who stood there alive and well that day.

One of the kids came running in from outdoors as Little Donna followed, tears streaming down her face. The kid said, "She's hurt herself. Look at her arm. She caught it in the door."

The little girl ran over to the couch and sat next to her aunt. Someone stood up to get ice for the swelling bruise. The child shook her head. "No." She curled up close to her aunt, cradling her swelling arm with the tears running down her face. She wanted to hurt. She wanted to cry.

Listener-Commentator Joan Worthington is a social worker.