Letters from Norie

Norie was one of those girls you expect to marry young and have plenty of kids. She ended up getting hitched at 22, but was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, meaning that her ovaries liked forming little cysts instead of producing fertile eggs. It wasn't painful, but for her it meant losing a lot of her beautiful black hair and getting manly features. Her voice gradually changed and despite the baby pink lipstick and the matching nail polish there was something very masculine about her, even the way she moved about seemed masculine.

Ovaries were the biggest tragedy that happened to Norie. They met their end when she was 29 in an operation called salpingo-oophorectomy. I must say the name alone makes me happy to have been born with XY chromosomes. She received hormone treatment until the end of her life, but for some reason, her voice never reverted back. In one of her emails Norie joked about becoming a famous singer, like a shrunken-down Asian Cher but with smaller boobs and less plastic surgeries. I could tell that she felt horrible for losing the femininity she had, her yin.

During her short vacation last September she seemed ten years younger, with her hair growing back thicker than ever. She confided to me that she was to become a writer. Even her emails grew longer until my inbox was full of mini novels. Norie never had any interest in literature, but now she complained of being deprived of sleep, because the words kept her awake. It sounded like a wonderful state to be in.

The news poured cold water on my dumbfounded face: Norie had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was told it was the new politically correct name for manic depression. But she wasn't depressed, she was buzzing around and enjoying life. Lithium did nothing and the sodium drug was just as useless. I guess they would have fed her all the elements in the chart had she not refused. The girl was blossoming, how could they label her sick?

For two weeks I received no Norie emails. I was starting to get worried, I called her mobile but it was out of reach. When I finally got a note, it was very brief, but I wish my automated spam filter had deleted it so I didn't have to read it. "I have brain cancer. They say it can't be operated, but I'm fine. Hugs, Norie." That's the kind of message that makes your heart stop and it never beats the same way afterwards. My filters blocked penis enlargement and Viagra ads, but cancer wasn't moved into the Trash Can.

I booked Lufthansa for the next day, had to go for business class because tourist was full. I ended up not flying, I don't know how Norie did it, but through the phone she managed to convince me that she was, indeed, fine (This is NOT spam). She sounded so well and said I shouldn't let the word cancer frighten me, it was just a lump of abnormal brain cells that God had sent to compensate for the flawed ovaries, to her this tumor was shukufuku, a blessing. If something unusual turned up, they'd give her a pill or two and everything would be fine and dandy.

The flow of the emails trickled down. Norie was serious about writing, she even quit her job in the photograph lab. She switched to Japanese and was practicing calligraphy too, leaving me puzzled. I wasn't even aware she knew the language past the basics, but could imagine her decorating blue Wal-Mart notebooks with carefully inked letters, shiawa or perhaps jounetsu.

In June I got a call from Andrew, who proceeded to tell me his wife was lying comatose in ER and there wasn't much hope of her waking up. This is when I knew I had failed. I ran for the taxi, from taxi to the airport and for another taxi in Philly, so one could say I ran to the States. Norie had already been declared braindead when I arrived, I supposed there just wasn't enough of Forrest Gump in me. When the machines were turned off, Andrew mumbled prayers but I just stood and stared. There was nothing notable about the procedure, the death of a girl who was already dead when she stopped breathing.

I spent a week at Andrew and Norie's condo not fully understanding anything and things just got more baffling. Norie's cancer went by the name glioblastoma, which definitely wasn't synonymous to nice or benign. The term he used was "aggressive growth." I still can't believe anything aggressive would fit inside of her head. The tumor could have been operated on, giving Norie an extra year. Andrew said the treatment would have proved very exhausting and that scared her, but my sister wasn't afraid of anything.

The writings were all over the place. Norie didn't actually have notebooks, but her dear husband brought loads of Xerox paper from his office. When every sheet was full on both sides, she scribbled on any surface, including walls, furniture and their fridge. The place would have made a hip cover story for Wallpaper*, too bad everything was painted over when Andrew moved away. But nothing Norie wrote made any sense, they were just random letters copied from books or the Internet, that was her writing career. I never told Andrew about that.

Norie remains in two locations. Her body lies in the soil of northern Pennsylvania, under a temporary gravestone spelling out her name in bland, western letters. The tumor was removed posthumously and is kept frozen in the hospital where she went to get painkillers, but never returned. Her ovaries are gone. I wish they hadn't trashed such a beautiful part of her, I imagine them full of small, spotted eggs, wagtail eggs. I could hatch them and breed a flock of Nories, all high on neurotransmitters, brushing happy kanji on my walls.