Being there for my sister

I write this while at my desk at home, thinking of where I’ll be next week at this time — in Scarsdale, New York, staying with my niece and her family so that I can spend time with my only sister, my niece’s mother, who is in the process of moving (or “being moved” is more accurate) from a rehab center in nearby Rye Brook to hospice care — place as yet to be determined. Her time, according to her doctors, may be very short. Or not. 

For sisters, the only two children in our family, the five years in age between us put us into virtually different generations — we really didn’t “catch up” with each other until both of us were married and had children. But even then, time was different, as it is now: I already have two great-grandchildren; she has two grandchildren, the oldest of whom is just in high school. 

We were never in the same school at the same time. I was married and a mother by the time she graduated from college, and our college experiences were very different: I chose the big university in the city; she chose a small women’s college, because she believed — early on — that girls were held back by teachers who favored male students. 

My sister did well in her undergraduate setting, despite the fact that she is — and has always been — bipolar. It’s a tribute to her ability to cope, to accept counseling and medication as lifetime necessities, that she went on to get two other degrees: a master’s in history and an MBA. But despite the latter, her work was always in high school history teaching. She did well, but not as well as she might have done had she not been subject to the mood swings associated with her condition. 

I was already married and mother of two when she came to Chicago to live — not with me, but near me; unmarried young women were not encouraged to go off on their own in those pre-feminist days. She shared an apartment with a friend from school, but there were many mornings — especially in the dark ones of Chicago winters — when I had to be at her place to roust her out of bed and make sure she was dressed and ready to go to school. Her students loved her; when she taught in New York’s Spanish Harlem after her own marriage, kids who had little or no use for school would cut all their classes except hers. For them, she was a performer; she learned rebel yells and folksongs, accompanying herself on the guitar. And once, when someone stole her hubcaps during a school day, those students offered to go out themselves and steal some to replace them!

Not all the memories are bad, but not all are good, either. We were never quite “the same”; it was always Big Sister and Little Sister. She herself had two daughters, but they were close in age, only one year apart in school, so they were friends as they grew up. However, they suffered in adulthood as their mother separated them: She depended on one and cut herself off from the other, making the one she depended on just as dependent on her, and cut off from her sister as well. 

All families are different. I know that. None, I suspect, are really “normal,” whatever that is — if you can get into them and truly know them. My sister hasn’t spoken to me for several years, no matter how hard I’ve tried to reopen the doors of communication that she herself closed. But today, when she can no longer speak, her daughter — the one she hasn’t talked to in years — tells me that my sister keeps the Shanah Tovah note I sent to her this year on her bedside table, and smiles when she looks at it. 

I wish my family were different in a different way. 

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