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Being There: How Birth and Cancer Tightened Family Bonds 

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My nephew came into this world on the day before Thanksgiving in 2003, via an emergency cesarean. My sister, Tanya, had unexpectedly developed a placental abruption.

A health-conscious long-distance runner, Tanya had enjoyed an uncomplicated pregnancy. Despite this fact, as well as excellent prenatal care, her placenta began dislocating from her uterine wall when she was full term. At first, she mistook the cramps for the beginning of labor. In the morning, when she began bleeding profusely, she knew something was seriously wrong.

On Thanksgiving Day, my brother and I flew to Charlottesville, Va. The airlines were jammed with holiday revelers, and I spent hours on the phone, finally securing a flight.

In Charlottesville, the baby's condition was a murky "wait and see." A nurse explained that the infant — deprived of oxygen in the womb when the placenta tore — hadn't been breathing at birth; his Apgar score, which measures a newborn's physical health on a scale of zero to 10, was zero.

During the holiday weekend, the hospital seemed oddly empty. My brother and I took the nurses' advice and camped in the hall on our third morning, long before dawn, binging on weak hospital coffee, so we could catch and quiz the exhausted pediatrician before she disappeared. In the cafeteria, I ran into the obstetrician who had performed the emergency C-section and thanked her profusely. "It was touch-and-go for a little while there," she responded, hurrying somewhere else.

We struggled in this unfamiliar terrain. The baby's prognosis wasn't clear. The hospital spoke one language, my family another; the baby was at the center, enmeshed in his own unspoken world. With nothing else to do, we waited.

My memory of our four-day stay is a mosaic of that jumbled-up hospital time, fraught with worry. The first morning, when I entered my sister's room, the lights were off, and she was staring through the window at the brick wall outside.

With markers and a notepad, my brother and I wrote encouraging notes to press against the glass of the NICU nursery, while my sister and her husband, Yuji, held their baby. Neither my brother nor I were allowed into that restricted room.

Later, my brother and I stood in a huge drugstore before an endless shelf of toothpaste — a veritable cornucopia of toothpaste of all things — both of us weeping. How could either of us care about something so trivial when our nephew lay in a sterile world behind glass? And yet, I longed to return to that everyday world — to braid my 4-year-old daughter's hair before preschool and, at the day's end, to sit down to dinner with my own family. I wanted an ordinary family life to begin for my sister, Yuji and their son.

When Yuji's parents arrived, we left. We had done little more than be there, stretch the circle of family, lift a bit of the load.

The baby survived. In fact, he thrived and became an imaginative little boy named Yasuhiro Shinozaki, who plays the piano and oboe and loves the Beatles. This story could end here.

Except it doesn't. When Yasu was 10 — four years ago — my sister found a cancerous lump about the size of a grain of rice in her breast. My mother called with the terrible news. "Your father's crying in the kitchen," she said.

That summer, my two daughters and I spent two muggy weeks in Charlottesville. Again, waiting. Again, uncertainty. My 15-year-old, miserably missing her friends, kept asking why we were there. "We're family," I told her, insisting that was answer enough.

One afternoon, while Tanya and Yuji were at yet another doctor's appointment, I took the children hiking. Out of sorts, sick of each other's company and the near-constant undercurrent of stress, they bickered over who would drink the dregs of watermelon juice. Finally, we ended up at the city pool. During an adult-swim break, Yasu and I sat together glumly, staring at the tantalizing, nearly empty pool. I said I knew his mother's illness was hard for him and asked if he wanted to talk. He shook his head, near tears but determined not to give in.

I didn't know what to do. If I assured him all would turn out well, I would dismiss his fear. But I was afraid, too. Who was I to tell my nephew, Do not love fiercely? Do not fear to lose that love?

In the end, I said nothing. Instead, I reached out and held his bare ankle. My hand circled his flesh and bone, where the skeleton of his boy's body was already pressing toward the man he would one day become. I remembered him as a scrawny infant behind that wall of glass, when the outcome of his birth lay not in any human hands. Ten years later, here I was again, waiting.

As a writer, I know silences are as important as words — sometimes more so. When Yasu was a newborn, I fumbled with comforting words to offer my sister, who was stunned by a birth story she had never envisioned. Only much later, I realized the presence of my brother and me — our willingness to drop our own lives for our sister's needs — was what really mattered.

Now I was in Charlottesville again: washing dishes, doing laundry, keeping house.

Beside the pool, Yasu and I sat together, my hand holding his bony ankle. I remembered him as a red-faced newborn I never got to hold, in that windowless, glass-walled nursery. After his difficult birth, what luck my family had.

We didn't know then that our luck would continue — that my sister would still be in remission today.

As we sat there, we just hoped for it, for the return to the blessed evenness of everyday life, my nephew and I, staring at the blue water and the chips of sunlight flashing over its surface.

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