For thirty-seven years I had a sister. An older sister by eight years who kept one foot firmly planted in childhood by playing Barbies with me well into her teens, but who also guided me into my own adulthood. Often left “in charge” of her little sister, she taught me how to play soccer when fat, clumsy me was laughed at by my entire fifth grade gym class.
My older sister taught me so much
She taught me about makeup and tampons, how to study for finals and make a good White Russian. When I was a pudgy, awkward 12 year-old with braces and a bad haircut, I looked at her life as a 20 year old college student as the stuff dreams were made of.
Endless streams of suitors, glamorous nights at campus disco dances (this was 1978 after all!) perfect nails, violet eyes that would put Liz Taylor to shame, and the most finely honed flirting skills rarely seen before or since. Her college life so entranced me, I ended up going to the same school 8 years later – the same school where my daughter now studies.
In spite of her resentment that my birth had dethroned her as youngest and only girl, my sister was my ready-made best friend and confidante. She took me to touring Broadway shows in Boston and on weekend trips to the mountains of New Hampshire, bar hopping in Portland, and on winding drives up the Maine coast.
When I was in college myself, blue and homesick she would appear unannounced at my dorm room door (2 1/2 hours from our home in Maine) and take me and my roomate to lunch. She sent me letters written in her ultra feminie curly writing complaining about our parents, or called to talk about what was happening on General Hospital. For that brief time we were both in our twenties together, we’d make trays of nachos and drink gallons of cheap wine and talk about how our mother liked our brother best of all and how unfair that was.
As we grew into women with families, trials, secrets, burdens and hurts of our own, we drifted at times. Always able to trigger each other’s temper, we were sometimes barely even able to be in the same room with one another. But come a crisis – large or small- we were each other’s “first person” to call for help and support. We were girls together, women together, and she lived long enough to see us become moms together. My daughter was four when she died- her boys heartbreakingly young at 17, 15 and 6.
Distance and the demands of parenting a toddler prevented me from seeing her before she died. Per her wishes she was cremated, so by the time I attended her funeral it was as if she had vanished off the planet. I told myself to just move on and get over it – after all that’s what we do in New England. And my mother’s grief was so huge, so all encompassing that there didn’t seem to be any room for mine. So I scattered my sister’s ashes, kept one of her bracelets, and buried her loss deep within me, only allowing light to touch it every year at Thanksgiving- the week she left us.
I see daily reminders of my sister in my daughter
Because here’s the kicker: for the past 20 years I have raised a daughter who rolls her eyes like my sister, curls up in sleep like my sister, reads like my sister, has a competitive drive like my sister, and is often startlingly smart like my sister. I thought it would get easier as my daughter got older but it’s been just the opposite. Watching her thrive at the alma mater we share with my sister has proven to be impossibly hard.
I wish my sister were here to wear the college colors with me, to decorate her car with alumni swag, to commiserate with her niece about the food in the dining hall, the steep campus hills, endless stairs, and the biting winter winds that cut through campus like a knife. I wish she were here with me to exclaim over the new buildings, improved dorms, and to marvel at the professors who are still there from ‘our day.’ She would have embraced texting and social media. I smile picturing her texting with my daughter, commenting on her Facebook posts and showing up at her dorm for an impromptu lunch when times are tough.
I’ve weathered a lot of loss in my life – dear friends, both parents, beloved in-laws- but no loss feels as raw and hard as the loss of my beautiful, complicated, sarcastic, loving sister. For sixteen years I’ve struggled with how to remember her and address my grief without my friends thinking, “Oh great, here she comes again dragging the ghost of her sister with her.”
I keep waiting for the day I’ll release her, and maybe that day will never come. But in the meantime, when the ache seems the most keen, I know I can find her in my daughter’s face, in the toss of her hair, the roll of her eyes, and her love of a good chick flick. So this holiday season, we’ll fire up a Hallmark Channel movie, make some popcorn and raise a glass to the aunt she barely remembers and the sister I will never forget.
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