My Sister’s Keeper (2009), directed by Nick Cassavetes

my sister's keeperCaregiving can be a full-time occupation. A friend of mine spends hours taking care of her aged mother, spending time with her, talking with her, trying to make her comfortable while she navigates the complicated bureaucratic machinery that is charged with providing for her mother’s basic needs.

My friend has not taken a vacation in years. Taking care of her mom is her priority, and to watch her is to see a child fulfilling the biblical command of honoring parents in the quintessential way. However, there is a downside to this total involvement. Her husband’s needs are neglected and her children feel abandoned. Certainly, her entire family understands the motivation of their mother, but inwardly they miss her attention.

This emotional triage that takes place in families when one member is ill is the subject of My Sister’s Keeper, a thoughtful film in which a devoted mother focuses all her attention on her cancer-stricken daughter to the detriment of her relationship with her husband and other children.

The title My Sister’s Keeper refers to Anna Fitzgerald, who was conceived in order to provide a genetic match for her critically ill sister Kate who suffers from an acute form of cancer. Parents Sara and Brian were not planning to have more children, but when a doctor suggests that providing a genetic match for Kate may be the only way for Kate to survive all the medical challenges that lie ahead, they have another child. The crux of the story concerns the renal failure of Kate at age 15 and the reality that Anna will be asked to donate her kidney, which prompts her to hire an attorney, Campbell Alexander, to sue her parents for medical emancipation. This will allow her to have control over the rights to her own body.

This legal challenge is the catalyst for a re-evaluation of the family’s attitude towards Kate, Kate’s attitude towards them, and their perceptions of each other. Each one in their own way is being tested through the crucible of painful life experience, compelled to examine their motives for caring for Kate and compelled to see things from the perspective of others, all of whom care for and love one another.

The Torah clearly states: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In simple terms, this means that you should treat your friends just as you want them to treat you. If you were sick and unable to manage things, you would want someone to tend to you. Therefore, you should be there for others who need you at times of stress or crisis.

None of us plans to be a caregiver, but sometimes it happens and we have to do our best. God’s plans for us and our own plans for our future do not always coincide. But that is the challenge. At the same time, we cannot ignore the rest of our family.

Caring for the sick is not a cookie-cutter activity. Jewish law instructs us to be very aware of the specific needs of the sick person. One size or type of service does not fit all. One great sage tells us to minister to the ill with our body, our soul, and with financial support if needed. “With our body” means that we should do physical actions to help the sick person. “With our soul” means we should pray on behalf of the sick person and inform the sick person that he is in our prayers.

My Sister’s Keeper reminds us that caring for the sick can be time-consuming, labor intensive, and emotionally draining, but it also must be emotionally nuanced. While the focus has to be on the sick person, the needs of everyone in the family still must be considered.

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