Keshia Naurana Badalge | Longreads | July 2022 | 10 minutes (3,285 words)
For each year that I move around the sun, my sister ages seven times as much. The odds are in my favor that even though we grew up together, I will experience her tail end before mine ever comes.
It was a Saturday in June, one year ago, when I got the news. My partner and I were living in Bakoven, a spot in Cape Town at the confluence of mountains and ocean. In the mornings, sunlight would sift in through our front windows, mirroring the milky gold of the Atlantic, while fog from Table Mountain foamed against our back doors. Our home stood so steadfast amid the dramas of the surrounding landscape, so unassuming, it occurred to me it looked like a storybook portal between worlds — wrapped in bliss, buffered from trouble.
Stepping out of my morning shower and into a cloud of hot condensation that day, I was struck by how Florian stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, regarding me with pause. He pressed me into a chair like I was porcelain, and I watched the movement of his lips as he relayed a message from my family in Singapore: Shandi has cancer. Hemangiosarcoma. She has one or two months more.
I remember only how he held his breath, waiting for me to say something. I told him I had to go.
The story of my sister and I began in Singapore, in September, 14 years ago. My father had left home for a lady he’d been secretly keeping, and my mother was single-minded about finding a pet to plug the hole he’d left. Let’s call him Albert, or Swarna, she had said, planning for a male dog to take one of my father’s names.
We went to a dilapidated white shack on the outskirts of town to look for my father’s replacement. It was overrun with animals: creatures trampling over each other, tossing and tumbling, making sounds like feral pigs. To the side, a single golden ball of fur sat up and looked at us, quiet and alone, bright and sweet as a sunflower.
She was the runt of the litter, separated from her siblings because they had stepped on her, bitten her, and eaten all her food, we were told by the farm owner. Moved by her circumstance — perhaps because we likened it to our own sense of being downtrodden at that time — we decided to take her home. We named her Shandi in the end, after a Jolly Shandy advertisement on a bus that passed us on the way. We changed the “y” to an “i” for cuteness.
Shandi and I belonged to each other from then on. My years in Singapore coalesced around her. She was the one safe thing I knew. We slept on the same bed, ate the same food, and lived with the same stomping, screaming, tired woman who made rules for how we were to behave and punished us when we broke them. Around us, a carousel of maids flitted in and out, like moths to a flame. The woman who regarded herself as our mother is my biological mother. My sister’s true heritage is more of a mystery: All I knew was that she hailed from Australia. Later, a DNA test let me know that she’s a quarter Labrador, three quarters golden retriever.
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When I received her prognosis that day in South Africa, it would take me 19 hours on a plane, and a three-week quarantine in a hotel before I would be able to see her again. I worried I would not make it in time, and when I imagined a world where she was no longer, I wet Florian’s lap with tears.
Let’s write her a message in a bottle, he said, as he stroked my hair. Tell her you’ll be there for her.
Florian shepherded me out of the house and into his car so he could drive us down Chapman’s Peak, a classic scenic route in Cape Town. We stopped to pick up one glass bottle, one pink card, and one set of colorful markers. In the car, we took turns writing letters to Shandi and pressing the notes through the narrow glass neck. Then, with a running start and a determined leap, Florian threw the bottle of wishes over the precipice.
I held him by the waist as we watched the waves beat one, two, three, four. Let’s get married, I said. I always wanted my sister to be at my wedding, walking me down the aisle.
Sisters have the greatest of loves, the closest of relationships: They give each other self-esteem and keep family ties alive. With who else do you share a mother, a home, an upbringing, secrets? The sister relationship is supposed to be the longest-lasting, longer than the time with our parents, the years with our spouses.
There’s some dogs who become good at truffle hunting, guarding property, guiding the blind, or easing the ill. And then there’s Shandi, who was naturally, simply, good at the thing I needed most: being my sister.
It was impossible to think of how I could face a world without the only family member that was really there, unwavering, no matter the circumstance. Ever present for me to hold, to play with, to breathe into. Both of us were girls with a penchant for Teresa Teng songs, tuna and bread, and the smell of wet grass. We were eager to please, so quick to acquiesce. She grew up fast and we entered our teenage years at the same time. We went on adventures to the mall and to the park, chasing boys and soccer balls. When I was with her, the world — which had previously been impervious to me, like a clenched fist — opened up to us. People waved and smiled, and I would wave and smile back, and Shandi would greet them with a nuzzle and dance circles around their feet. Days were gentler with her by my side, filled with sunshine and snacks and song.
She loved outings, new places, and open spaces. In these moments her ears would hike up, her feet would tippy-tap, and her whole presence would lift as if she had swallowed the moon. She would make the most joyous puppy sound, ringing from the insides: hnnng, hnnng, hnnng.
At our childhood house, she often retreated under furniture and stayed there, quiet. Ours was a family prone to loud noises, overturned tables, a phone thrown against the wall, people being hit. Here I devised an addition to the three instinctual reactions when in crisis (fight, freeze and flight): go to sister and hold her tight. She was the one I would look for, to lean my ear against her beating heart, or press my face into her butter-soft belly — an ostrich hiding in fur. We were good at playing dead together, two girly lumps in a corner, pretending to sleep, counting the moments, waiting for time to pass. How many times I’ve listened to her heartbeat to drown out painful sounds, to tide through tense times. One, two, three, four.
We slept on the same bed, ate the same food, and lived with the same stomping, screaming, tired woman who made rules for how we were to behave and punished us when we broke them.
Her capacity for love was endless, and she was a refuge for others, too. In a house of few reprieves, small moments of humanity happened with Shandi. Every fifth household in Singapore employs a live-in foreign domestic worker. It’s common to have help, and maids are allowed a day off a week, but my mother’s maids worked round-the-clock. Accused of doing their tasks poorly, they were continually made to labor harder, longer, and without rest. With errands teeming to be completed day after day there was no time for them to leave the house, my mother insisted.
These women quickly learned my sister offered one of the scarce chances they had to be free from my mother’s watchful eye. In Shandi’s routine walks, our maids got to walk on grass, talk to fellow dog walkers, wave to babies, laugh, make jokes, and look at the sky. They got to be human. Walking with Shandi gave them a small semblance of normality, a narrow view of the world outside of our cramped apartment. I’d like to think it emboldened some of them to seek work with more peaceful homes.
When I was awarded a scholarship to study in America — the only way I could put myself through school — it was my chance to leave, too. It was an opportunity for a new start, away from the harshness of the home I knew, and it came with a cruel condition: I had to leave Shandi behind.
There is no easy way to express how much it pained me to leave my sister — a sister who I had previously spent every night dreaming with, holding her paw; a sister who can’t video call, send letters, or visit. The last photo I have before leaving for the airport that year, 10 years ago, is of me draped over my sister’s chest, kneeling on the grass, eyes red with tears. I left her a well-worn hoodie of mine, hoping she would at least have my smell. I didn’t know how to leave enough of my love to withstand the rest of the years.
During my time living abroad, I made a Tumblr account named after my sister, to serve as her proxy. I blogged in secret, writing private letters addressed to her. I made an email account with her name. When I missed her, when I longed for her softness, her warmth, her smell, I wrote. I described snow, heartbreak, and American slang. I told her how much I wished she could be here; how much I wanted to take her roaming around the forests of New Hampshire. I missed her breath, her wet nose, her ears like velour.
I told her my dreams, dreams that were so out of reach that I was too embarrassed to tell anyone else. I imagined her receiving them, listening calmly, extending her paw.
Tapped as the stand-in for my father from the time she joined the family, I always knew that when the time came, she would be the one to walk me down the aisle. On Sunday, the day after we received the news, Florian proposed to me on a beach in Scarborough. He had the ring the whole time, he told me, preparing for the right romantic moment. What was a matter of timing became a matter of prudence. I put the ring on, packed my side of our Cape Town apartment, and departed for Singapore four days later.
Let’s get married, I said. I always wanted my sister to be at my wedding, walking me down the aisle.
When I think of Shandi in Singapore all those years, I imagine a sad and lonely existence, of how the people around her failed to pay attention. From the time Shandi came to our family, she was beleaguered with troubles. Early on in her life, my mother — a first-time dog owner — clipped my sister’s nails to half of their length. (She didn’t know to look for the quick.) Frustrated with the bloody mess on her floor, she relegated Shandi to the back kitchen and went to bed. I remember wrapping my sister’s toe with flour and kitchen napkins, and when the bleeding continued, I called an emergency vet, who instructed me to take her in.
“I’m 14,” I told them, “I can’t drive.”
“What about your parents?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I mumbled something about it being fine — to assure them, or myself, I can’t tell the difference. I stayed with Shandi on the kitchen floor, clutching her crumpled toe. Blood ran from her paw to mine.
This time, when I made it out of South Africa, out of quarantine and to her side, she reminded me of that small hurt puppy from before, all ribs and skin and bleeding sores. In 10 years, she had aged 70, yet she still had the affect of a baby. Her innocence never wore thin. Haloes of white had formed on her face and lower body, and she looked ethereal. My hands sunk into the cloud that was her fur and I pulled her close. I inhaled deeply, taking in her shimmery eyes, her broken teeth, the wetness of her lips, the cool roughness of her nose.
The first night back by her side, I called Florian and pressed my phone’s receiver against her beating heart. “Listen,” I said, laying on the floor and holding her paw. Together we listened to Shandi’s heart beating, one, two, three, four. We promised to get her out this time.
I was utterly in love with my sister, delirious over being reunited, resuming our sleepovers, our shared meals, our sisterhood. I watched her blonde eyelashes as she slept, whispering, “I love you!” Sitting down to draw her in the park, “I love you!” Cleaning her buttocks, her wounds, “I love you!” Sneaking into the veterinarian’s office after she was shaved for an ultrasound, I crawl on the floor, I collect her fur, “I love you!”
Singapore finally relaxed its COVID-19 rules enough to grant an exception for relatives of Singaporeans to enter in late July, 2021. In two short weeks, Florian sold most of what he owned, packed his life into two neat suitcases, and boarded a plane from South Africa to meet us. It was his first time in Asia.
Here was a man uprooting himself in order to uphold a promise: to love my sister, and to take care of her, ʼtil the end of her days.
We wed in our new apartment two days after Florian completed quarantine, my sister between us; our ring-bearer. In my vows, I thanked her for walking me down the proverbial aisle and passing the beacon — and literally, the ring — onto the next person who will continue what she has done for me all her life.
In that apartment, Florian, Shandi, and I would go on to create our world — a home with padded alphabet foam floors and carpets to keep Shandi from slipping, a dog bed in every room. We made a choice to withhold chemotherapy and instead focus on managing her pain. Each day, we tune into the rise and fall of her chest in the morning, the consistency of her stools at first pass. We concern ourselves with the shape of her stride, the wobble of her hips, the state of the grass, and whether it would be a good time for a walk. Acts of attention — toward Shandi, toward the fundamental nature of the world in which we live. It is a grounding in what matters.
I stayed with Shandi on the kitchen floor, clutching her crumpled toe. Blood ran from her paw to mine.
As a child, when I wanted a dog — years before we had Shandi — the adults around me warned of the level of care a puppy needs: “Puppies are a lot of work, they poo everywhere, chew stuff, need to be trained, are you sure you want to take care of it?” No one mentioned I was getting a companion that would likely die before me, or the ache and grief of watching illness and old age befall that once-small furball. In The Last Walk, Jessica Pierce writes, “When we commit to owning an animal, we must commit all the way to the bitter end, as in a marriage.” To take care of a young being is a feat of creation, a celebration of continuity. To take care of a senescing being is a slow, sweet grief, a leaf turning inward into itself, a kind ouroboros. It is an honor.
So it is my honor to be with Shandi at the start and end of life, when we are the most intimate, the most helpless, wholly dependent. One day, as I was bathing Shandi and singing to her, I thought about my own baths as a child and my grandmother singing to me. I lived with my grandmother until I was 10. Ah ma would go into the bathroom with me and bathe me, then set me at the edge of her bed, my feet toward the center, my long hair toppling over to the side. Sitting on the floor, she would comb my hair slowly, separating each tangle with her long, bony fingers. Next, she would dab my hair with a towel, pressing down gently around my temples, the back of my neck, soaking up moisture. Finally, the hair dryer would appear, to take care of the remaining dampness. It was care, sustained mindfully, without speed, without concern for efficiency. It was attention given through touch, from feeling and cleaning another being, paying notice to what is needed: whether the bathwater is too hot, whether you are combing too hard. The questions I ask myself for Shandi are the same questions my grandma used to ask for me. I am reminded of the physicality of love.
I want to experience as much of Singapore as I can, with Shandi. Our travels are short. At 14, she tires easily. Still, we’ve soaked her paws in the mineral waters of the Sembawang springs, watched the light show with her at the Gardens by the Bay, and pushed her in a wagon (the Shandimobile) up the Enlightenment trail at Haw Par Villa to the Goddess of Mercy at the top. During the mid-autumn festival, when children run around the streets with brightly lit lanterns that make festive sounds; we made Shandi into ours. We wrapped Christmas lights around her collar and walked her — our lantern of joy, illuminated — surrounded by a sea of children and musical dragons and orbs and golden suns.
We have seen more of Singapore in the past months than when I lived here for the first 19 years of my life, tourist attractions and hawker centers and all. I don’t always know how much these actions make Shandi’s life better, or help to forestall the cancer from taking her, but two things I know to be true:
Firstly: She has outlived her prognosis. Veterinarians tell me she is a statistical anomaly, an aberration. A specialist even wondered if the cancer was misdiagnosed after all. None of the vets have seen a dog survive for over a year with hemangiosarcoma. And still, she persists.
Secondly: When she’s outside, her ears tip upwards, her feet tippy tap dance, and she makes my favorite sound, that sweet puppy-like chest hum from 14 years ago: hnnng, hnnng, hnnng.
When I walk with Shandi down the grassy patch of my apartment block, I notice dogs of all ages peer out from between steel balustrades on the balconies above us: there’s a bulldog with an Elizabethan collar, a dachshund just born, two collies sleeping under curtains, an old terrier on a table. I am reminded that each of these dogs leaves part of a human to the mercy of timelines far shorter than a human lifetime. They are a testament to time’s hand ticking at a speed seven times greater than we know it to be, the heady scent of puppy love that ripens to solid notes of care and joy and grief and heartbreak at old age. Gazing upon the sky, at all those balconies with dogs above, I imagine each of them walking down the proverbial aisle that is Life with their companions, each of them aware of that star-crossed covenant with time, and unhindered, they say, “ʼTil death do us part, I do. I will.”
My sister likes to walk ahead. I will keep her in my gaze, I will hold my end, I will keep the pace — until the time comes for the one thing I have to let her do alone. Til then, I do. I will.