Read This Heartbreaking Story, Then Go Call Your Sister

Photo: Courtesy of Julissa Catalan.
The author (right) and her sister.
Six months after my older sister, Emma, passed away, I woke up one morning to realize that I could no longer hear her voice in my head. I scrolled through my phone, desperate to find a video or an old voicemail, but there were none. I was left feeling guilty for not being able to recall the sound, and I was angry at myself for all the times I had hit “delete” instead of “save” when she left me a message.

Emma had been diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer five years earlier. At the time, she was given only six months to live. From that point on, every moment we had together was precious, and we tried to focus on the present, not letting ourselves think too far into the future. It never occurred to me to take iPhone videos or save her messages in order to preserve the sound of her voice for later. Part of me was still holding on to the hope that I would have plenty of time to collect more memories — and footage — with her. She probably wouldn’t have been an eager participant in filming, anyway. She was weak and embarrassed by how the cancer had affected her appearance. She had sores in her mouth from chemotherapy that made it hard for her to talk or laugh.

After she was gone, what I really longed for was a pre-cancer recording. To hear her voice when she was healthy and happy, the way I wanted to remember her.

Here’s what I did remember: Her tone wasn’t high-pitched or low-pitched, just somewhere in the middle, like mine. Emma didn’t have an accent when she spoke English, but you could tell the Spanish language was her first. When she said certain words, like salmon, she couldn’t silence the L. If she used a Spanish word or phrase, like enchilada or Carlos Santana, within an English sentence, she over-enunciated the Spanish. Then there was the occasional mispronunciation of big or unfamiliar words, like the time she yelled at her son, “Ryan, stop disbehaving!” Or the time she called the Star Wars characters “the jetty” instead of the Jedi.

I could no longer hear Emma’s laugh, even though laughing was what we did most of the time. The best laugh usually arrived when we watched frat-boy comedies like Wedding Crashers or Superbad, or when the family sat around the dining room table making fun of one another; that was the only time Emma's voice would get high-pitched. She made a "tee-hee-hee" sound, and her red-brown eyes would shrink until they looked almost closed, and she would put one hand on her chest and bend over in a fit of infectious laughter.
Photo: Courtesy of Julissa Catalan.
I always knew how she was feeling about me, depending on what she called me that day. If she was mad, I was Julissa. If she was indifferent, I was Julie. If she was happy with me, I was Jules, and if I was sick or sad, I was mamita.

Emma had the funniest Spanish sayings, which she used in any possible situation. I remember those because my family and I still use them now.

There was “Cagado el dedo, cagada la mano,” which roughly translates to, “If your finger is fucked, your hand is fucked.” She generally used this pearl of wisdom in reference to food — as in, if you're already supersizing your McDonald's value meal, why bother getting a Diet Coke? Just get a regular Coke.

Another favorite was “Tras gordo hinchado” which is similar to the saying, “I give you an inch, and you take a mile,” but technically translates to, “On top of being fat, you are swollen, too.” For example, if you ask to borrow $20 bucks and then complain you wanted it in tens, fives, and singles — not just a $20 bill.

A lot of my memories revolve around Emma’s vulgarity. She cursed like a sailor and spoke openly about sex. Every phone call or voicemail usually began with her yelling “Motherfucker!” to which I would reply, “Yo bitch!” And if she saw a good-looking guy, I anticipated her whisper: “Man, I would give him an around-the-world!” (I still don’t know what that move is, really.)

After she was gone, what I really longed for was a pre-cancer recording. To hear her voice when she was healthy and happy, the way I wanted to remember her.

This behavior was disarming because Emma was a classic beauty: the kind of girl who never left the house without makeup and a perfect manicure, the kind who always smelled like lavender, the kind whom men remembered as "the one that got away." I attributed her potty mouth to having two teenage sons whose lingo was contagious. It just became part of her sense of humor.

It had only been six months since Emma died, and I remembered all of this; yet I just couldn’t conjure the actual sound of her voice. It made me feel even more distant from her. I asked other family members if they were experiencing the same thing, and they all said no. Our brother, Byron, and Emma's son Ryan said they dreamed of Emma on a regular basis, and in those dreams she spoke to them. They both said it was as if they could summon her into a conversation. I was far from that, but decided I would try to call upon her myself. Before I fell asleep every night, I would silently talk to Emma. I told her I missed her, and that I needed to hear her voice one more time, so I could carry it with me forever. I told her I felt unsettled and needed that resolution within.

About a month later, Emma came to me in a dream. I couldn’t actually see her; it was pitch black. It wasn’t a conversation like what Byron and Ryan had described. It was simply her voice, leaving me a message.

“Hi Julie, this is Emma. I didn’t get a chance to tell you everything I needed to before I left. Please call me back when you are ready. I love you very much, mamita.”


Julissa Catalan lives and writes in New Jersey. This vignette is part of a compilation tentatively titled Stories of the Invisible Girl: A Collection of Dysfunctional Memories.



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