When we were kids, I thought of her as a small twin growing out of my ribcage. She was born with absolutely no protective covering. I kept her safe from the dark and the evil. I rescued her from panic. I taught her to cross streets and read and do psychic Kreskin tricks, and braid hair. For years, I had anxiety dreams in which, in a variety of heinous situations, I lost my sister to some vampire or pervert or car. She cried a lot: when our parents were yelling, when we had to go to bed while the other kids were still playing on the street, when Mama said something mean about her looks or the friends she brought home.
I made up stories for her. Brave girls with super powers and no parents. Curious girls who saved a town or worked their magic for good or were not fooled for a moment by the divine in disguise or came into their own when they learned that they were royalty or rich. The world was a dangerous place, and I'll bet you money that Sister still thinks of those stories I told her and holds her suspicions about the nature of the world in front of her like a shield. But now she is able to assert herself, at least with me. And although I have told her all of her life to do just that, I can't say that I like it because I don't want her to do anything hard all alone.
When my mama was pregnant with Sister, she also had a tumor in her uterus. By the time the growth was removed, it was larger than the baby. Add to that the fact that Mama was given thalidomide for morning sickness, and my sister was born a little stunted. Not slow, just... unformed somehow. The way a baby bird is so vulnerable and needy. And Mama just wasn't a comforting, warm mama. So it was Sister and me. And I'm not saying I was a great mentor, either, only that I was all she had available.
After our parents took us from paradise to the frozen tundra, we were sick all the time. They fed us cod liver oil and penicillan pills the size of Brach's mints and Vicks Vaporub down the throat and up the nose. We spent so much time wrapped up in historical quilts and navy blankets, drinking warm whiskey with lemon and honey, and making up songs about people we hated at school. Mama was an excellent nurse, and was sometimes known to let us come downstairs to watch her stories with her; she was so nice when we were sick that we had no reason to get well soon.
Mama was embarrassed that such a non-Christian statement came out of her six-year-old, and she told my sister loudly enough that the rest of the people in the waiting room would know that she didn't approve. If only we had dear Dr. Diphold now when we need him.
Sister and I slept in the same bed for so many years that I still can't sleep alone. We curled together like spoons and always turned in our sleep at the same time. When we moved to the god-forsaken prairie, my parents tried to excite us about having separate rooms, but we weren't having any of it. Until I left home and found someone else to sleep with, one or the other of us crept into the other's room every night as soon as Mama stopped bitching--I mean tucking us in--and went downstairs.
The last time I saw my dad, he told me to take care of my sister. He knew he was going to die (and that is another story), and he took my promise that I would keep an eye on her. We always believed she needed that. Now she won't let me, Dad.
This time she says she doesn't need anything. That she is too tired to think. That I need to be patient. That she doesn't plan on dying. This is little comfort to me. I'm not patient. I want to DO things. I'm the big sister. I make things right. I've talked her through bad marriages, and kept her from making what Dad always called "idjut" decisions, and settled her down when her dreams carry her off on the wind, as they do sometimes. She'd have been married as many times as I have if it weren't for me.
We once saw a TV program with a man who claimed to be cured of cancer by laughing. After that we used to say, "We'll never get cancer because we laugh too much." Not true. Not true.
But just in case, I'm going to stir around in my story bag and pull out those old moldy tales that always make my sister laugh. Because even if laughter isn't the best medicine, it's the only thing I can do.
Tomorrow I'll hit a lighter note.
P.S. My friend Rose should continue to call me Sugar.