England 362 (Bairstow 99, Stokes 58, Root 52, Rabada 4-91) and 243 (Moeen 75*, Morkel 4-41, Olivier 3-38) beat South Africa 226 (Anderson 4-38) and 202 (Amla 83, du Plessis 61, Moeen 5-69) by 177 runs
The Saturday before the England-South Africa Test series started I was sitting out on my patio reading in the sun. It had been a really good day. I had woken up early and done some writing and got a bunch of chores done and went for a bike ride and went to the farmers market for fresh vegetables. And then it was mid-afternoon and I was on the patio with Roberto Bolaño and a Bent Paddle pilsner and it was 82 degrees and sunny with big blue skies and it was perfect.
I happened to look down and see that I’d missed a call and had a voicemail. It was from my sister. My sister never calls me, and so I assumed she had either dialed me by mistake or that something was horribly wrong with our mother. I listened to the voicemail and it didn’t sound like an emergency. “Hi Matt, it’s your sister, just calling to chat. Feel free to give me a call back or maybe I will just try again later.” There was no urgency, no tragedy. Just a simple message.
I didn’t want to call her back. It was a Saturday and I was sanding the edges off what had been a really long week. I wanted to keep reading and have another beer and then make dinner. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to anyone, including my sister. But my curiosity was killing me! What the heck could she possibly want? And so I sighed heavily and picked up my phone and called her back.
She answered on the very last ring. As the phone was ringing, I started to think: what if she was calling to admonish me for being a poor brother, or crappy son, or both? I mean, I would deserve both lectures, but it really wasn’t something I wanted to hear about on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and so I started to pray that she wouldn’t answer, that we could just play phone tag all day. But she answered. And proceeded to tell me that she’d had a colonoscopy, and that they had found a mass, and they didn’t know anything yet, that she needed to have a biopsy, but that she wanted to tell me herself, and that she needed me to, simply, be her brother.
I was relieved! Our mother wasn’t sick or hurt or dead, she didn’t want to yell at me, and so I bowled her over with optimism: “It’s fine! I am sure it’s nothing,” I said. “It’s probably benign anyway, and even if it is cancer modern medicine is amazing and this will all be fine.” I don’t think she believed me but looking back it was probably better than moping with her. I told her that I was there for her, whatever she needed, whenever she needed. Five minutes later I was back in my chair on the patio, reading Bolaño and drinking my beer. And while my optimism had been a symptom of my initial relief, it was genuine. I really thought that everything would be fine, that life would just go on as it had, that this wasn’t even a blip on the family radar.
Two days later, the 4th of July, two days before the first Test match, I had the day off for the holiday and it was around lunchtime when I got home from a bike ride and checked my email on my phone. There was a message from my sister. She had been diagnosed with colon cancer. My sister. My only sister. My half happy, half sad sister. Cancer. It hit me like a sack of bricks. I had to wait a few minutes to tell my wife after reading the email because I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.
“Maggie has cancer.”
The day is a blur after that. I wrote my sister back and, again, gave her those empty but genuine platitudes that we all give people in times of crisis: whatever you need, whenever you need it. I called my mother and we talked and then I drank beer on the patio and went to the book store and then to the record store. I just kept picturing her empty chair at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table, her empty spot next to the Christmas Tree, her laughter quiet, her spirit gone. My mother and brother are very close to my sister. Losing her would suck the life out of my family forever. We would never recover. And then even if she made it through, the next year would be so hard on her and — as she’s a single mother — her teenage son. Her teenage son who is the same age I was when my father died.
I wasn’t doing very well.
Back on the patio I started to think about how I wanted to write about it. About her. And then I remembered that I had wanted to write a new post for each day of the England-South Test series. And so that’s what I did, and that’s what you have been reading. Along the way I discovered consistent themes, themes that I knew existed but had never really thought about. About how strong my sister is, how deeply devoted she is to the people around her, even the ones who don’t treat her very well, and how all she wants is to eek out a little bit of happiness, and how she always seems to find a way to do that, even when skies are dark and the future uncertain.
On the Saturday of the second Test match, as England were collapsing to all out for 205, my sister told me over lunch at my parent’s house that her cancer was stage 3, meaning it had spread to her lymph nodes, but not to her other organs, that she would be going through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, followed by surgery. Again it hit home. My sister. My only sister. Cancer. Only 42. And I worried about her, and I worried about our mother. And I felt so helpless. But then I looked over at my sister, and I saw strength, and good humor, and optimism. And I realized that I had a lot to learn from her, that after all these years as brother and sister, I had allowed myself to see only one small side of her, but there was so much more there. And I knew in that moment that everything would be okay, that my sister was too strong, far too strong, to lose this battle. And over the next few weeks, as I collected memories here on the blog, that faith strengthened, and it also made clear that I needed to be there for her and her son — really be there, not just with empty words — just as she’s been there for me all these years, sometimes in the background, waiting, other times right out front, defending me, helping me. And that’s what I want to do for her. And I want these blog posts to not be a memorial to my late sister, but instead a reminder of her strength and love over the course of a long, happy life, and that I should always be striving to be a better person. A better son. A better husband.
And a better brother.