by Bella Rum
Until my sister died after a long and painful dance with cancer, I was closer to her than any other woman since my mother died in 1973. It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years today since I last heard her voice or saw her face. That time thing is deceptive. I never think it’s been that long.
We were very different, but we were also very much alike. Our tastes and choices in clothing, interior decorating, politics and husbands were completely different. She kept her secrets close, taking some huge ones to the grave; I have a tendency to reveal too much, too soon, too often about myself. Still, we were more like each other than we were like our other two siblings. We held mutual core beliefs. We lived similar lifestyles, we were both extroverts (I’ve become more introverted.), we loved cookbooks, food, movies and books, and we viewed motherhood in a similar way. Neither she nor I were incautious, risk-takers, spendthrifts or tax evaders. We both liked happy-ending movies.
She liked lovely, sweet, nonviolent, relationship-type books, and I like history, horror, psychological thrillers and end-of-the-world-oh-my-God books. She loved Renée Zellweger and I love Diane Keaton. We agreed on the world’s most urgent problems, but hardly ever agreed on whose fault those problems were or how they should be resolved. I see both sides of every coin and often struggle with decision making, she never sat on a fence in her life. She was very decisive and confident in the side she chose. She was so sure that she had it right, and I always think one more piece of information could change everything I know and believe about something. I’d be a perfect juror for the defense; the prosecutor would love her.
I’m sure we never voted for the same president in our lives. We tried not to talk about politics too often, but we had our moments. Let’s say we had similar values, but they often directed our decisions and actions in different directions. We always agreed about what the problem was, but seldom agreed about the resolution or the right guy for the job.
We could have been twins if our mother hadn’t given birth to her nine years before me. Once a server asked us if we were twins. I cringed. She glowed and promptly told the woman that she was nine years older. She could hardly wait to get home and tell H and her husband. You know I loved that. Not.
We shared so many genes, it was disquieting to look at her sometimes. It was strange to see another version of myself. It was like looking at myself nine years from now. She loved telling me what to look forward to: dry skin, scaly elbows, thinning hair, skin tags. It was like little, bitty horror stories every time something new popped up. But I always knew she’d be there to tell me about that certain lotion that would cure the scaly elbow skin or what lipstick would stay on my lips all day, or how to stem the flow of hair that falls from my head every day. She would always look out for me.
Once she borrowed my coat on a rainy day. We were on our way somewhere, and she was driving. We were chatting away when I turned to say something, but I stopped in mid sentence. She looked at me and I looked at her. Only an instant passed before we both burst into laughter. It was eerie to see her in my coat – not her style at all – and looking almost exactly how I would look in one, short decade.
I’m only a few years from her age when she died. Nowadays, I walk past a mirror and catch my reflection, and who do I see? Not me but her. It’s her, the way I remember her. I know that one day I will see her older than she was when she died. It’s disquieting.
We were so different in certain ways and alike in others that we had a difficult time accepting each other in the beginning. After our mother died, I remember making a deliberate decision to make things better. I was twenty-four, only beginning to understand what was most important to me. I picked up the phone and called her one day. I didn’t know what to expect, but she was receptive. That started the ball rolling in the right direction. It only inched forward at first, lurching here and there.
I’d like to say that the rest was history, but it was not. We hacked and chopped our way through one resentment after another, and when we thought we were done with it, we would revisit it, all of it to be beaten down again. At some point, we became real sisters with a bonafide sisterly relationship. We accepted our differences; that’s to say, our differences no longer stood in the way of our love for each other. In our last real conversation, I told her she had been both mother and sister to me. Nothing was left unsaid.
The most important thing you should know is that we laughed. There was something that she really hated/loved about letting loose and laughing uncontrollably. She did not like being out of control, not even in laughter. She was wound pretty tight, and I loved to snap her spring. She would laugh so hard that she would gasp, and in the gasps she begged me to stop. Then I would lose control, laughing at her laughing at me.
I performed for her more than anyone. When she was dying, I was living with Dad so I was in the midst of family. I had lots of stories. Almost daily, someone in our family did something crazy, and I couldn’t wait to call her and tell her outrageous stories about them all. They were all true, every one of them, but I embellished and spit-shined them until they whined and shined, and I spun them for her until she laughed uncontrollably and begged me to stop. Her daughters and husband later told me that in the last months of her life, she only laughed when I called her. Her husband said, “I always knew it was you when I heard her laughing.”
She was my older sister and she was the boss of me. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I let her be the boss. It was a comfortable role for her and for me. That’s why we were both shocked when I was the one to care for Dad. Of course, she was sick by then and lived in Florida, but that wasn’t it. I came to realize that the role of caregiver would never be a comfortable fit for her. She was not cut out for it. Who would have ever guessed that I, the baby, was.
Our roles reversed after I moved into Dad’s and her illness progressed. She could no longer support me. I had to support her just when I needed her most. Everything was backwards with her and with Dad. Two of my closest relationships turned upside down over night and at the exact same time. It was a very challenging time. The worst was that she was in Florida and I couldn’t go to her because of everything that was happening with Dad. I didn’t see her that last year. All our conversations were on the phone.
It’s been seven years today. Seven years since she died. So much has happened. The grieving is long over, but I still miss her. It’s like she’s been on a long vacation, and I wish she would come home already. I don’t know what happens after death. As in most things, she was sure of it, and I’m here, still trying to figure it out. I hope she was right.