“Be kind to your brothers and sisters, “ I once read. “Their life span parallels yours. If you’re good to them, they’ll be a meaningful part of your life for more years than your parents, spouse, or children.”
When I was younger — engaged in teasing, tattling, and fisticuffs with my many siblings — I would have scorned such an idea. Who’d want to be stuck with that throng of thugs forever?
Until something threatened one of them.
I remember my worry about Carolyn.
My sister was an athletic 11 when rheumatic fever forced her to spend five months in bed in the late 1940s. She couldn’t get up, even for the bathroom. Bob and I were intrigued: meals in bed served on a tray, big sulfa tablets mashed in honey, the bedpan.
For Carolyn, it was prison.
One warm afternoon, Mom suggested Carolyn, into the second month of her sentence, might like me to read to her. I carried a book into her large, light-filled bedroom made as pleasant as possible on a limited budget.
Glass wind chimes hung outside the screen door that provided a cooling breeze and a view of the side lawn. An assortment of perfume bottles filled with colored water decorated the windowsills, creating rainbows that shimmered around the room. From a clean cage suspended in the corner, two canaries fussed in a neighborly way. The paper dolls we played with earlier still sprawled in various stages of undress atop the bedspread.
Carolyn agreed I could practice my reading on her, but none of that baby stuff.
Deep into “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” a selection that elicited only a minor eyeball roll from my weak sister, I didn't notice that the family cat had illegally entered with me.
It stealthily circled the room before leaping onto the birdcage, claws scrabbling toward its alarmed, wing-beating prey. While I sat open-mouthed, Carolyn ignored Dr. Moody’s repeated warnings about the danger of sudden movement to her heart and sprang into action.
"Damn it," she shrieked, a daughter loyal to our profane father, and leaped out of bed, swinging her pillow. Cat vanquished, door slammed, birds screeching but safe, she flounced back to bed, fixed me with a threatening look, and described in detail what would happen to me if I told anyone, ever, that she got out of bed.
I had bigger worries: I thought my lack of attention had killed my sister.
When she fell asleep, exhausted, I left the room, but kept creeping back to check her breathing every five minutes all afternoon, my heart frozen from my fear of losing her.
Recently, I showed a friend a photograph taken of my siblings and me last summer at a family reunion. As I named each, I imagined how she saw us: faces lined with wrinkles, some slightly stooped, some overweight, some bald, nothing remarkable about any of us.
But that’s not what I see.
When I study the photograph, the years fade away, and I see us as the distinct personalities we were: energy-filled, happy, and best friends even as we squabbled. I see brothers and sisters who know me completely — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and still love me.
I give thanks that over the years we’ve been nice to each other, that they’ve been part of my life as long as I remember.
Sometimes in dreams I return to the homes and years I shared with my brothers and sisters.
We’re usually gathered in the kitchen. I sense the presence of our parents, and I hear laughter, and I relax into the sense of belonging I feel when with my family.
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