My mother fell apart after she and my dad separated, so I took care of my little sister. Nobody told me to do this, or exactly how. It was just something I did because she was my sister, and I loved her. I was eight and she was three. Children, both of us.
I knew how to do the little things like comb her hair or make her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when she was hungry. It was the big things that caused a pain in my stomach, though. Worry. I came home from school one day, and my sister had stitches near her eye. She had been hit in the face with a swing in our back yard. Who was watching her, I asked. Where was Mom when this happened? She didn’t know and didn’t care. But I did, because I was the one who wasn’t there.
When I was ten and my friends went off trick or treating on Halloween, racing to fill their pillow cases with as much candy as they could, I took my five- year old sister, door to door, slowly, at her pace. It was dark out when a teenager ran past us and grabbed her pillow case. She screamed at the shock of him whizzing by and cried at the loss of her treats. I gave her half of mine and told her not to worry–it wasn’t a real monster, just a bully.
In the mornings, I would remind my sister to brush her teeth, and she would get mad at me, shouting, “You’re not my mother!”
In those days, my father defended me, and would say, “Don’t talk to your sister like that. She’s better than the mother you got.” Eighteen cavities later, I never once said, “Told you so.”
A year after my father got sole custody of us, when my sister was seven and I was twelve, she came home from school with tears in her eyes. “The kids are teasing me about my bald patch.”
Bald patch. What bald patch? She tilted her head down so I could see, and sure enough, there was a quarter-sized bald patch. The patch continued to grow, so my father took her to the doctor who said the hair loss was from nerves. The doctor wanted to inject something into her scalp, but at the sight of a 12-inch needle, my sister protested (screamed?), and so it was decided to use a cream applied twice daily to her bald spot.
I can still feel the roots of her hair and see the pasty white of her scalp where I had to rub in the cream. I hated the world for making me do this to my sister, and hated my mother who caused the stress in the first place. If I saw my workaholic, perfectionist father a little more clearly, I might have blamed him too, but in those days, he could do no wrong in my eyes. Did my sister hate me for reminding her she had a bald spot, a loss that she herself couldn’t see? I find it curious that nowadays doctors won’t ask the mother to hold her baby for shots, or stitches, or whatever. They think the baby might associate pain with the mother, causing attachment issues.
In my disowning, my father made my sister choose sides. At first, when I was in college and she was in high school, my sister used to sneak out of the house to see me. Later, when I moved an ocean away to marry my high school sweet heart, a Swiss exchange student, she told me she despised me and hoped I never moved back to the U.S. I could hate her for turning her back on me. I could call her selfish for not showing me any kindness when I took care of her for so long.
But I understand. I understand she needed our father more than she needed me. For fifteen years, my sister worked at the same news station as my father. As a famous sportscaster and our sole parent, he was larger than life, so my letters and cards were no match for his daily presence. She lived two miles away from the house we grew up in. I always felt these were her choices, her decisions, but were they really? Does a child choose to need air, any more than my sister chose my father’s love?
I never lost hope, either for my sister or my father. After all, I had done nothing wrong, or nothing worse than grow up. It took me more than a decade of unanswered letters and the birth of my own children, to understand the depth of family patterns, though, and to see how my father was repeating his own childhood trauma. His oldest sister had been disowned for getting pregnant out of wedlock, and her name was never to be mentioned again. Has my name, too, not been mentioned for 25 years?
When my father died a couple years ago on Christmas Eve, he left her nothing. Six months later, her husband left her too. She has no children.
I hear she now lives an hour from our childhood home, and so when I visit DC for work in a few weeks, I will drive by her house, ring her doorbell, and leave her some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. There’s something about the memories of years of baking together and the timelessness of the love those goes into a homemade cookie. It’s the only way I know to soften a hardened heart. If she answers the door, which I’m not expecting her to, I only hope that she doesn’t do anything worse, than say “I hate you.”