Unlikely Sisters

A while back, I wrote the following essay. It hasn’t been published, so I figured I’d offer it to readers of my blog. I’d love your comments!

Unlikely Sisters

“miss rayan pls can you buy me some food. call when you can come. luv u.”

On the days I’m busy teaching and she can’t reach me by phone, Edwina texts her requests.

She needs a ride to her oncology appointment at the county hospital, because her “boy’s car ain’t workin’.”

Her prescription ran out and she can’t walk to the pharmacy around the corner with her back “hurtin’ real bad.” Could I stop by after class?

Sometimes she just wants to catch up. “Where you been?” she’ll ask, scolding me for not returning a message about somebody who’s been “gettin’ into drugs” and “fixin’ to get kicked out” of the low-rent apartment complex where they both live.

Since we met a few days before Christmas in 2009 at a church in Birmingham, Ala.ministering to the homeless, Edwina and I have bonded over our common identities as breast cancer survivors. We’re part of the same sisterhood.

We’re also from different worlds.

Edwina, 48, has lived her entire life in Alabama. She’s African American and grew up poor in a family of five kids, her mother dying of lung cancer at age 57—one of many reasons why Edwina delayed more than six years before getting a suspicious lump in her breast checked by a doctor.

Most of Edwina’s adult life has been spent crashing on friends’ floors or sleeping in cars, convenient places to call home when you’re addicted to crack cocaine and don’t know anybody with enough money or patience left to keep a roof over your head.

I’m the same age as Edwina, white, a transplant from the Midwest who came to Birmingham to accept a tenure-track job at the university. I’ve got a Ph.D. in English, have traveled to just about every continent, and never spent a day in rehab or jail.

Diagnosed with breast cancer twice over the past 18 years, I can’t fathom ignoring the warning signs of something serious. Any bump or lump gets reported promptly to a top-notch cancer specialist.

It’s tempting to conclude our friendship is a one-way street. In this scenario, I get to play the She-ro, leaping to Edwina’s side to demand better pain medications despite her history of drug abuse or to help with Medicaid paperwork to get Edwina a sturdier walker for her bum leg.

Edwina, though, is no damsel in distress. She’s one tough cookie who put a stop to a boyfriend’s beatings by swiftly slicing one of his toes with a paring knife. Most days, she has a story to tell about a brother or a neighbor, or somebody she used to know from the street, who tried to push her one step too far.

“I told ‘em to get on out of my face,” she’ll say, shaking her head in disbelief that anybody would think that messing with her was going to turn out as planned.

Edwina’s not scared to bring me to task either.

“You better start callin’ that nice husband of yours ‘Honey,’” she spats every time she overhears me “talkin’ smart” to the man who treats me better than Edwina has ever known.

Recently, Edwina chided me for turning up my nose at the ham hocks and pig’s feet she tossed into her grocery cart while rolling purposefully through the aisles. “What’s the matter with you, Miss Rayan?! You ain’t never had none of these? I’m tellin’ you, y’all don’t know what’s good.”

So it goes. Sometimes, I think our conversations must sound like a whole lot of nonsense to anyone who happens to be standing behind us in the checkout lane or sitting alongside us in the hospital waiting room. We talk over each other, trying to balance one world perspective on top of the other.

Then there’s breast cancer. I’ve had breast cancer longer than Edwina, who was diagnosed in 2009, so technically, I have more “experience” with the disease. I’ll chime in during a conversation between Edwina and her doctor with the proper name for a procedure Edwina is trying to find the words to describe.

But my diagnoses, in 1993 and 2004, were stage I breast cancer, while Edwina’s living with stage IV. Her struggle is more intense. She suffers from pain in a way that I can only imagine advanced cancer to feel.

The difference between her prognosis and mine is by far the most significant gap between us, however much we quibble over the little things.

Truth be told, poverty, addiction, and fear of medical institutions from which sick relatives never returned are more than coincidental to the toll that breast cancer has taken on Edwina’s life. Just as my more hopeful cancer journey is part of a larger story of fulfilled opportunities and lucky breaks.


I’m thinking about the stack of ungraded papers back in my office as I pull up to Edwina’s apartment building. She rises from a folding chair out front and hobbles towards my car.

“Edwina, you know I don’t text. Just call me.”

“I know, Miss Rayan, I know,” she sighs, shaking her head and angling her cane sideways to settle into the front seat.

She has an appointment we need to get to.


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