Monday, July 25, 2011

Allies, Rivals, Partners in Crime (otherwise known as Sisters)

            A few weeks ago Sister's Week circulated on Facebook. I obliged by reposting the status, something I rarely participate in,  and posting a picture of my sister and I on my profile. But I knew immediately that I wanted to do more. I wanted to blog about her. When I look back over my life my sister is a player in all the major events, and she left an indelible mark on me. She is the person I have most admired and respected in my life, my role model and at one time my best friend. I doubt she knows this. I doubt she knows about all the memories and memorabilia I still cherish, or how often I regret the space which has grown between us over the years.
            My first memories of my sister come from the family photo albums. While there are a couple of years between us, you would think we were twins-- a combination of her diminutive stature and my mother's wacky need to dress us identically-- but our personalities have always been very different. She was more reserved and introspective, more thoughtful and responsible. I was a little more obnoxious…. Ok, a lot more, but that isn't the point.
            I know we did things together when we were younger, but the real memories come around the time she became a teenager. I remember envying milestones she reached first, like shaving her legs, getting her period, wearing make-up, and having boobs. I realize now that I probably resented her moving on without me too.  We went a few rounds, like I imagine most sisters do. As the bratty adolescent, I recall several fights that ended in something getting broken in the ensuing chase and the resulting fights about whose fault it was. I can't recall what caused the fights but I know that I laugh about the mayhem now.
            It was really when I became a teenager that she became my best friend.  I was a Freshman in high school her Senior year. It was a small school with fewer lockers than students. Siblings were expected to share lockers. So there we were two teenage girls forced to share a one by twenty metal box in Senior Hall-- a privilege she had waited four years to achieve. I have no recollection of  her ever complaining about it. She took me under her wing from the first day and made me feel safe and wanted. She showed me where to eat at lunch and kept me from getting hazed on Frosh scrub day.
            I joined her in the drama club and delighted in sharing the two leading roles, Maggie and Casa, in the school play. She totally stole the show! It was at that time I had my first date. My costar in the play, a boy I had to kiss onstage for the first time in my life, asked me out to a dance. My sister helped me get ready and then presented me with a list of talking points. Two hand written pages torn from a spiral notebook. One being her "Guide to Easy Conversation" listing recommended topics like Boy George's new haircut, the sexual orientation of President Reagan, cannibalism, triangles, Aristotle's Poetics, and TV commercials (but not radio because they're boring.) The second sheet was titled "Things Not to Discuss" and listed topics such as: your hobbies (nobody cares), dead animals (one of grandma's favorites), mooses, squares, Edwin Moses, and your tongue (just think about it and you'll see why.)  You can probably see my sense of humor runs in the DNA. I'm sure she has no idea that now, twenty two years later, I still have those two lists close enough at hand that I could quote them. She probably also doesn't know how much those two lists helped to relax me and relieve the anxiety of my first date.
            The last week of school one of the clubs sold balloons for a dollar and delivered them to your classroom with a telegram from the sender. I was surprised when I received a bouquet of a dozen balloons from my sister with a note (yes I still have it) reading, "Congrats on making it thru your frosh year! Remember familiarity breeds. Love 'Casa.'" I was also envied by every other one-balloon carrying kid!
            We shared a million other amazing memories in that one year of high school together, but instead of growing apart when she went to college, we grew closer. Most of my friends were hers. Together we went to movies, the beach, Disneyland, and pretended to be The Monkees (Don't even ask!) When I was learning to drive and wrecked my car in our driveway my sister was the first out of the house, camera in hand, to document for posterity and make me laugh rather than cry. When I took my first plane trip anywhere, she was my seat mate. We skated in Rockefeller Center and rang in the New Year in New York City. She helped me get ready for a blind date to a stranger's prom (don't ever be a blind date to a stranger's prom. Awkward!)  She organized summer picnics on the college campus where we splashed in the fountains together. She threw me the best Sweet 16 party with all our friends where we played poker all night.
When I graduated high school she went with me to Europe, where we shared rooms so small you could wash  your hands from the bed, flirted with swarthy men, played drinking games with our tour group, and almost missed our bus to the next country on more than one occasion. In Venice she helped me try to buy a stick of deodorant (impossible) and later, she helped me scour drug stores trying to mime signs for feminine hygiene products (go ahead…try it. I'll wait.) and never complained that I was disorganized or wasting her tourist time.
            After high school we worked together at a preschool. We took field trips to the pumpkin patch and gossiped while standing yard duty together. After I found out I was pregnant she coerced me to walk with her every day at lunch, claiming it would help ease my labor, and unknowingly eased my burden by being a good listener and motivator. I still have my first Mother's Day card, sent in-utero from my baby, via her auntie. She took a horrendous 4000 hour train trip with me when I was too pregnant to drive, and drove the long road trip to visit my mom after I had the baby. When my newborn got sick and needed surgery it was my sister who showed up at the hospital and brought me clean underwear and other necessities.
            When I fell in love after only a few months of dating and decided to get married she never told me I was being rash, or rushing into it. She wore the bridesmaid dress she hated and never mentioned how much she disliked it. Instead she made all the bridesmaid's matching tennis shoes for our outdoor reception. She caught my contagious giggles during the ceremony and stood next to me while I gave my vows.
            When I had to rush off to the emergency room at 3am with sick babies she came to my house to sit with the other children. She paid for my daughter to go to preschool, having her husband pick her up every morning and drive her to school and home again. She took my daughter every Wednesday night for dinner and tutoring. We took our children swimming together at Great Grandma's in the summers, took them sledding one winter and vacationed together in Yosemite last year. She is Godmother to my daughter  and a wonderful aunt to all my children. When I was cooped up and isolated as an at home mom she invited me to join her friends in a Bunco group where we played together for 12 years.
            I have innumerable memories of her making me laugh, consoling me when I cried, protecting me when I was scared, supporting me when I was weak and dispensing sisterly advice. I have long admired her; her intelligence, motivation, cleanliness, and keen sense of fashion. So why, with such rich material did it take me three or four weeks to finally write this blog? Because, despite her excellent example, as a sister I am an epic failure. I was never any of these things for my sister.
            I was never a good listener for her. I never made her laugh to relieve her stress or just hugged her when she needed support. I never sent her balloons or brought her clean underwear. I wasn't a very attentive aunt for her children. More than anything else I have always regretted not standing up with my sister when she married. I was five days from delivery of my second child on her wedding date. I couldn't afford the dress and alterations for my giant belly and due to preterm labor issues I had to back out. To this day I bear an enormous amount of guilt for abandoning her like that, but I never told her. I knew she was hurt and angry with me and I felt it was best to just let it be, rather than bring it up, even to apologize, and I have let that guilt interfere with our relationship. I don't know if she ever thinks about it, but I have never had a conversation with her where I haven't longed to tell her I was sorry. I have allowed it create a distance between us for almost 20 years.
            I didn't want to write this blog, until I had some sort of resolution; until I had told her I was sorry. I have spent the last weeks trying to summon the courage to tell my sister how I felt and that I love her. I have spoken to her on the phone and sat in her home across her table trying to make the words come out, but I couldn't.  In my whole life hers is the only opinion that I has ever mattered to me and I am afraid to bring up the topic. If she has forgotten I don't want to remind her, and if she hasn't I don't want to drive her further away. That is what I have said for almost 20 years and I just can't move past it.
             While writing this blog, as I tumbled through the box of old memories-- Mother's Day cards, dating advice, photos and telegrams-- I came across a letter my sister wrote to me when I was 17. In it my sister confesses having a hard time telling people how she feels and that my ability to be open and vulnerable with people is something she admires and hopes I never lose. Ah! The irony!
            With those words of encouragement I sucked it up and sent the original draft of this blog  to her via email explaining I have only one real regret in my life and it is not being a good sister, not being there for her when she needed me. I was preoccupied by my own life, my own problems and my fear of hurting her more. I thought a lot about her, but I never acted. I said all the things I have waited too long to say.
             I wasn't sure when I started this, what I would end up with; how I would tie this up in a neat little bow with some sort of meaningful lesson. I am happy to report that she responded back and, in addition to letting me off the hook for my failure, she made me laugh (because that's how she is.) and corrected me-- she was Godmother to my daughter and not my son, (God I suck!)  I guess if there's any lesson in all this it's not to let things unsaid come between you and those you love. I wasted a lot of years dreading the worst. If I had just had a little faith in the sister who had so clearly loved me so much for so long I could have been a better sister myself.
            I'm sorry it took me a month to finally write this blog. I'm sorry it took me 20 years to tell her how I felt. My sister doesn't have a Facebook, but now she knows:  "Your sister is your first friend in life. No one will ever understand your crazy family like your sister. Even if you don't get together or talk as much as you could, she'll always remain your best friend. Your sister will hold your hand for a little while, but will hold your heart for a lifetime."


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