The number four has always been a reoccurring theme in my life. I’m not sure why, but when you’re me, you don’t question such simple things. My sister, Alice, has always told me that the number four is lucky for me. And for the most part she was right, especially since it played such a big part in meeting her.
Like anyone else, most of my early childhood memories are fuzzy and incomplete. A jagged puzzle of early youth, that’s impossible to complete without photographs and parental recollections. But I do have one memory that is about as clear as any memory can possibly be; the day she came into my life.
It was my fourth birthday. I was so excited to tear into my presents and devour the sugar trifecta of cake, ice cream and fruit punch. But my grandma kept telling me that I had to wait for my parents, who were bringing home a special present. I stomped my little foot in petulance and impatience. As far as I was concerned, you snooze-you lose when it comes to cake, so I just couldn’t see why we had to wait.
I soon heard the familiar crunch of gravel as my dad’s car pulled into the driveway. Running for the door, I threw it open to see my parents exiting the car, my mother carrying a large, bulky blanket.
“Daddy! Daddy!” I sang, as I leaped into his waiting arms. He laughed and twirled me around before carrying me into the house on his shoulders. Once inside, he sat down on the couch and positioned me on his lap, as my mother sat beside us with her bundle.
“Bella?” My mother began. “We have someone we want you to meet.” She pulled back the blanket and I was met with a mess of brown hair and big, brown eyes. She looked at me, mirroring my own curiosity. This was the strangest doll I had ever seen, and being unable to resist the urge to touch her, I slowly raised my chubby, little hand and advanced one finger towards her cheek. But just before I poked her, she suddenly displayed a full set of teeth and sank them into my outstretched finger. The sharp pain raced up my arm and out my mouth with such a cry that the doll immediately released my smashed digit, and began a howling of her own.
“Dolly bit me!” I wailed, as my father tried to soothe me. Not only did I feel the physical pain in my finger, my feelings were hurt too. I couldn’t understand why my new dolly would want to hurt me. After a time, when I was sufficiently pacified, my father explained.
“Bella, honey, this isn’t a dolly. This is Alice, your new sister. She’s three years old.”
Tears returned to my eyes, only this time in disappointment. “But I wanted a dolly for my birthday!”
It took about two days before Alice and I were completely inseparable. And although I always maintained a healthy respect for her teeth, she and I could not have been any closer. We did everything together. We shopped together, went to summer camp together, toilet papered the cranky neighbor’s house together, and even insisted any guy that wanted to ask one of us out, have a friend so that we could double. Alice took care of me when I fell and broke my arm, and I held her while she cried, after she finally realized that she couldn’t actually see the future.
Because of how our birthdays fell, we were placed in the same grade in school. I was on the older end of the class and she was on the younger, but all we cared about was that we were together.
“Hey, Alice?” I asked, as I admired my cap and gown in the mirror. “What if someday, something happens and we can’t be together anymore?”
Without missing a beat, and only as Alice could, she flippantly replied, “Keep asking questions like that, and we’re gonna find out.”
Alice always knew what to say, and though her snarky mouth had gotten us into trouble more times than I could count over the years, it talked us out of even more, so I couldn’t complain.
On our fourth day on campus at the University of Washington, I literally walked into my future. As we walked up the steps to the library, a big chunk of air caught on my shoe and sent me flying into a bronze haired god. The deep blush in my cheeks made my mortification obvious as he steadied me on my feet, which was only magnified as Alice spoke up.
“Bella, how many times do I have to tell you not to wrestle with the air? It wins every time!” Alice rolled her eyes dramatically, before addressing the stunned Adonis that was still holding me up. “Please excuse my sister, we have her and her feet in couple’s therapy, but they still can’t find a way to get along.” Now it was my turn to roll my eyes.
“Please excuse my sister, her mute button broke when she was five and she hasn’t shut up since. I’m Bella by the way.” I extended my hand to the now highly amused upperclassman.
“Edward,” was his simple reply, as he took my hand and flashed a perfect set of gleaming, white teeth through a slightly crooked smile. If I would have died right there, I would’ve happily gone with this image in my mind. “And this is my friend, Jasper.” He indicated to his left and his previously unnoticed, yet oh so yummy, friend stepped forward.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Jasper drawled, in his sweet Texas charm.
Lightning struck twice that day, and four years almost to the day later, Alice and I walked down the aisle. Our proud father in the middle, with each of us linked through one of his arms, as he escorted his girls to their destinies. Our twosome became a foursome and life moved forward in joy and love.
At age twenty-eight, I sobbed on my sister’s trembling shoulder as the doctor explained my prognosis. Without immediate treatment, I had four months to live. With treatment, I still had no guarantees.
“How am I going to tell Edward?” I wept.
Alice gripped my shoulders tightly, shaking me slightly and forcing me to look into her eyes. They were fierce and full of determination.
“Now you listen to me, Isabella. We are going to fight this with everything we have. We are a team and we will never give up. You will live, and we will bounce grandbabies on our laps and take geezer cruises with the two most handsome older men you have ever seen. Do you understand me?” I nodded slightly, before she brought her forehead to rest on mine. “Besides,” she continued, wearing her trademark smirk. “After your surgery, we’ll have a whole new meaning for buy one, get one half off bra sales.”
I didn’t know if I should laugh at her or smack her, so I settled on both.
“Ow!” she protested, before being consumed in my laughter. I’m quite sure the doctor was looking up a psych consult for us, but that just made it funnier.
True to her word, we fought. She cared for me after my mastectomy, and drove me to my chemotherapy appointments when Edward couldn’t. She cried with me when the nausea became overwhelming and kept me laughing when it wasn’t.
It was a beautiful sunny day, a rarity here in Seattle, when Alice showed up to drive me to yet another appointment. She let herself in, as usual, but this time she had a surprise for me.
“Alice? Your hair! You cut it off?” Alice had some of the most gorgeous long brown hair I had ever seen. It had a slight wave to it and was always so silky. But now it was short and sort of exploded all over her head in an array of spikes. I had to admit, she’s probably the only one who could pull it off, and she actually looked quite adorable.
“Well,” she began, sounding nervous. “The wig maker called and said that there wasn’t quite enough of your hair for a proper wig, so I kinda went and gave him some of mine. They can dye it to match. You’ll never notice.”
I couldn’t speak. She had always been so proud of her hair, and with good reason. My throat closed around a lump; my nose stung and my vision blurred. This was, without a doubt, the single most thoughtful thing anyone had ever done for me.
“Oh stop blubbering,” she suddenly ordered, her voice betraying her attempt at sternness with a slight quiver. “It’s only hair. I can grow more, but I can’t grow another you.”
That did it. The floodgates were open now, and we exhausted ourselves into a mess of tears, snot and swollen faces. Yeah, I said it. We had the ugly cry.
A few months later, Alice surprised me again. The four of us were out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Alice and I now both sported the same spiky hair. She had kept hers, she said, so that we could grow our hair back out together. We had just finished our main course, when the waiter returned with a small round cake. There was a single candle blazing away in the center, and when I looked at Alice, she simply smiled with shining eyes and mouthed, “That’s one.” I hadn’t even realized what today was until that moment. I had received my prognosis exactly one year prior to that day. I had made it eight months longer than he said, and I felt as though I was getting stronger everyday.
“Are you ready to go, Bella?” Alice called impatiently. The previous night, I had been presented with a four candled cake, and now Alice and I were preparing to leave on a three hour drive, back to visit our childhood home.
“Just one sec,” I called back, before returning my attention to Edward’s lips. Ten years of marriage and I still could not get enough of that man. Reluctantly, I pulled away.
“Hurry back to me,” he whispered into my now long, flowing hair.
“Always,” I replied, giving him one more chaste peck, before running out to the car where my oh-so-subtle sister was laying on the horn in her impatience.
“Alright already! Jeez! Let’s go!” I huffed, as she floored the gas in her typical kamikaze style of driving.
The ride was pleasant when Alice wasn’t terrifying me with her driving. She’s the only person I know who can make something as benign as a lane change seem like a life or death ordeal. But we made it, and as we passed the welcome sign on the outskirts of town, I was instantly flooded with nostalgia. Our parents had retired to Phoenix a couple of years ago, but even without them here, there was still a strong sense of home.
We drove through the town, stopping to chat along the way with some old friends of the family. We ate at the local diner, and visited the store owner that gave us our first jobs. There was a peace here, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was calming and cathartic.
Continuing our tour, we stopped at the old oak that stood regally at the edge of a vast meadow overlooking the town. The wildflowers were in full bloom, the setting sun illuminating the brilliant yellows and purples.
“No way!” Alice exclaimed, pulling me from my reverie. “Check it out! I can’t believe it’s still here.”
I walked around to where she stood and sure enough, a very familiar scar in the bark stood out. It was the simple carving of two twelve year old girls and it simply said, “I.S. + A.S. = SISTERS FOREVER”.
“C’mon, Bella. It’s been four years. Let’s celebrate.”
Alice grabbed my hand and led me out into the meadow we played in as children. For a moment, we pranced through the flowers without a care in the world, laughing and reminiscing as we went. And as we approached the center, the secret spy headquarters of our youth, Alice suddenly lifted our intertwined hands triumphantly into the air, giggling and yelling.
“Four years! And this is just the beginning!”
I laughed at her typical over-enthusiasm, but also teared up as I was suddenly overwhelmed with love and life. I had so much to be grateful for. I’d had more love in my thirty-two years than most people get in ninety, and I owed most of it to the person standing beside me. My rock, my co-conspirator, my best friend. I could have never imagined that the dolly who cried when she bit my finger would now, twenty-nine years later, be crying as we said our final goodbyes. She was my angel in life, and now I would be hers in death.
Four months after our trip home, I was told that I was no longer in remission. This time, there would be no fight. This time, it would win.
I gazed up into the faces of the two people I loved most in the world, willing their tears away. Leaving them was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had already stolen four years. Four of the most precious years of my life. Not many people get a second chance like I did. A chance to live a little fuller, and love a little deeper. To truly understand the delicate gift of life, and share it with the most amazing people. But I was tired now, and it was time to go.
“Please don’t cry for me. You’ve given me the best life anyone could ever hope for. I will always be watching over you. I love you both so much.”
Using the last of my strength, I reached up and pulled bronze and brown haired heads to my chest. I kissed them both...and closed my eyes.