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VERY FIRST PERSON

The Ultimate Test of Sisterhood

Would the Bonds Forged in Childhood Carry Them Through the Cosmetic Surgery Experience?

September 28, 1997|Jessica Maxwell | Jessica Maxwell writes regularly for Esquire and Audobon magazines and has just published a fly-fishing book, "I Don't Know Why I Swallowed the Fly" (Sasquatch Books and Avon Books)

Valerie was The Beauty of the family. I was The Creative One. We are only a year and a half apart. Heather was The Baby. So, growing up, the closeness--and the competition--was between Valerie and me.

We were raised in Manhattan Beach under the visual tyranny of the surfing era, when cool girls were tan, skinny and blond. I was none of the above. Valerie was two-of-three, but her thick auburn mane gave her definite Katharine Ross points. I looked more like Howdy Doody with sunstroke.

Years went by. You find your place in life. Heather became a Silicon Valley attorney. Val stayed in Manhattan Beach. I migrated to the Pacific Northwest, where Scottish skin thrives and the humidity feeds naturally curly hair. Valerie remained California cool, and I at least looked romantic.

Then, one after the other, Val and I turned 40. And what it took to get us where we were had begun to show up on our faces. Living where I do, I fared better. But being a Sunbelt psychologist, the UV rigors of beach life had taken their toll on Valerie's skin, and after 15 years of mining the junk inside baby boomers' heads, a lot of it had ended up on the outside of hers--Valerie had a frown line as deep as Topanga Canyon between her eyebrows. Besides being unattractive, it was a definite occupational handicap to constantly scowl at already depressed patients. So when two of them showed up for therapy with glorious new faces at the hands of the same cosmetic surgeon, Valerie made notes. Then she made an appointment.

What she needed, Dr. Robert Applebaum told her, was something called an "endo-forehead lift." Her surgery, she told me, was scheduled for the end of February. I would, I told her, be there.

On North Bedford Drive in the heart of Beverly Hills, Applebaum's office was discretion incarnate. Surgeries are performed right there in his private operating suite. Patients arrive and depart via an elevator in the viscera of the building's parking garage, far from the light of day. Applebaum's waiting room looks like something out of the original Met Home--all Prussian blue tapestry and cranberry leather, with a colossal crystal bowl filled with lemons on the coffee table. In person, Applebaum echoed this elegant aesthetic. A good sign, I thought. I once vetoed a doctor for a simple mole removal because his tie looked like something Kramer would wear.

In my sister's world, every minute works for its supper. But this fateful morning she just sat there. "If I die, will you take care of Jesse and Amber?" she asked, referring to her children.

"Oh, you're not going to die," I said. "You're going to be . . . reborn."

Then my brain started morphing. What if she does die? What if there's an earthquake while they're cutting and she ends up blind? What if they give her the wrong anesthetic and she turns into the Nutty Professor?

"Valerie?" a soothing voice called out. "We're ready to take you back."

It was Fleta, Applebaum's registered nurse, exuding kindness and competence. Valerie and I both fixed her with a behold-our-Lord-and-savior gaze. Fleta led Valerie into a little locker room, where a surgical gown awaited. After she put it on, I absently regarded her clothes--her little black flats and her dress--hanging phantom-like from a hook. This empty still life of my sister terrified me. I almost begged her not to go through with it.

Fleta led Val into a consulting room, where Applebaum soon appeared and began making lines on her face with a purple marker.

"Are you ready for your new lip?" he asked me suddenly.

My new lip. I'd almost forgotten. In a moment of sisterly sympathy, I had agreed to let Applebaum "enhance" my naturally thin upper lip with some of my own fat cells; it would give me something to recover from, too, the ultimate in sisterly support.

Two hours later, I was lying on a table--booties, gown and shower cap in place--when Fleta wheeled Valerie out of the operating room. Her eyes were swollen shut, her forehead looked bulbous, blood from her wounds dripped grimly into plastic pouches behind her neck, and she was the color of cement.

"I . . . feeeeeeel . . . sicckkkk!" she croaked in a horrible Darth Vader voice, the result of the tube that had fed anesthetic gas directly into her lungs. She started to lurch forward.

Traveling at the speed of spirits, Fleta flew to my sister's side, cooing at her and coaxing her back down. Some day, when either of us breathes our dying breath, I am sure the name on our lips will be "Fleta!" and no one in our family will know what the hell we're talking about.

Now Applebaum was at my side. "OK, are you ready?" The sedative I had been given started to kick in. I was fading fast. The peace of surrender snagged on one glaring thought: I am abandoning my baby sister. The next thing I knew, I had a lip the size of the Ritz.

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