Earlier this week, the morning, already dreary from the dampness and rain, brought the news that Leila Abu-Saba had died at her home in Oakland. Cancer finally took her. She had beat it before, but it returned.

It is a familiar, painful story. Eight years ago, my younger sister, about the same age, died after a three-year battle with breast cancer. I write these lines from her house where I’m temporarily staying, and I often remember her in these rooms as she struggled through chemotherapy, fought nausea and dehydration, and watched her world fade. She too had beat the cancer once, but when it returned, she chose to accept the inevitable. Leila, I understand, tried hard to fight it all the way through.

In our family we have often wondered, would my sister have lived if she had resisted? We have always had to face the sad truth: there are no guarantees. Some people do beat it and continue to live — others do not. A fierceness of spirit may help some, but with others it proves inadequate. There is so much that we do not understand about cancer. And yet when someone dies young, it is impossible not to be brought low by the utter unfairness of it all. We’d like to blame someone, something — but there’s nothing to blame. Sometimes death insists on its mystery.

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