In the midst of a busy Sunday, spent in the usual flotsam and jetsam of a fading weekend, I have contemplated what I might say in honor of my sister Joyce’s birthday.
My sister has my mother’s strength, her brown eyes, and her way of letting heavy burdens settle on her shoulders. We don’t always agree about life’s choices, but when the wolves circle, we stand back to back, daring the fiends that threaten us. I could not ask for a more stalwart defender, nor would I ever fail to answer any summons she might reluctantly whisper in my direction.
She turned seventy-three today. Like me, she seems to be reaching for her potential in the last decades of her life. She has come through hardship a different person than a kinder world might have allowed her to be; but her contours enable her own gentleness to shine.
I would not want to be the person who challenges my sister’s strength. If one of her students struggles; if her daughter falls ill; if a wounded creature lies on the side of the road, there you will find my sister. She cradles the failing body, the broken mind, the fevered brow. I have never cried but my sister somehow divined my pain and came to offer comfort.
Yet my sister has a wicked sense of humor, my mother’s influence there, I can confirm. She rolls her eyes and I feel a giggle rise. I have to turn my head and hide my mouth behind my hand. In a few minutes, I will be laughing so hard that I’ll surely wet my pants. I beg her to stop her antics, but — like our mother before us — she merely pauses, then comes out with one last wicked, delightful parry. I capsize on the bench of whatever restaurant we’ve chosen to grace. As we howl, the server inevitably pauses to remark, You two are sisters, aren’t you? I can’t pull myself together but Joyce responds, every time, She’s my BABY sister.
We’ve led complicated lives, my sister and I. We have long-winded, intricate explanations for how we’ve each chosen to play the cards in our hands. From time to time, we lose patience with each other, but mainly because we each take turns fearing that the world will defeat the other. We share what we’ve learned; we confide our fears; we throw down gauntlets for the enemies that hover.
My sister supports every choice I make. She walks beside me on every path, no matter how broken. When I must take steps on my own, she watches, fretting, ready to spring into action if I stumble. She took every marriage in stride despite how misguided they seemed. She held my hand as the marriages crumbled. When I told her that I was going to sell my house, close my law practice, and move to the westernmost edge of the nation in a tiny house on wheels, she started pricing flights to California.
She has visited me twice. We threw a luncheon for the women in my community during the pandemic. Every one of them still talks about how nice she was. I get the distinct impression of decided surprise in their sideways glances. I mean, I suppose, that they can’t quite understand how I could have such an amazing sister. They get no argument from me. I told one of them once, She’s my BIG sister, and my neighbor nodded in understanding. You could see it in her eyes: They broke the mold after that one!
I won’t contend that my sister has no faults, but only because I hear my mother’s voice: People who say “I know I’m not perfect” usually think they are! Joyce rises above her shortfalls and her shortcomings. She finds a way. She sucks it up, Buttercup, and puts her best foot forward. Say what you will about my sister Joyce, when the chips are down, you’d have no fiercer advocate in your corner.
I’ve done what I could to return her loyalty. I don’t like to brag, but when I was eleven or twelve, Joyce took Kiddie Lit in summer semester at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. She had to read and report on something like three hundred children’s books. We made a trip to the bookmobile, checked out a stack, and divided it into two piles. On our old manual typewriter, I hammered out my share in time for her to pass the course. Because of my sister, I read Harriet the Spy in the same month that I read What Maisie Knew which I had picked for myself. Not very different from one another in some ways, those two novels; though the latter had slightly more challenging vocabulary.
Joyce and I have not lived in the same city since 1980 when I moved for law school. Forty-three years; two-thirds of our lives. But she has been beside me for every major event in my life, if not in person, then by phone, e-mail, or smoke signal. She summons St. Anthony when I feel hopeless and desperate. She swears on our mother’s grave as a mark of veracity or dedication. If someone hurts me, my sister demands the culprit’s telephone number in her steely voice. I spare them her wrath. I will call them, she avows. I assure her that I do not doubt her. And I would stand her bail. But let’s just say, it’s the thought that counts.
From time to time, my sister Joyce grows weary. She’s survived so much; she’s overcome so many challenges; she has faced such dreadful disappointments. And still, she rises; still, she soars. Like a phoenix, like a butterfly, like a lost soul on a drifting boat, my sister forges through flame and flood. She’s fierce, my sister; but she’s also gentle, and wistful, and soft. She has taught special needs children for over fifty years. She’s left the classroom now, and works with home-bound children. They send her the students that no one else knows how to reach; and she connects as no one else can. From time to time, one of her charges slips from this earth, overcome by their cancer, or their injuries, or their childhood diseases. My sister mourns each loss; but she finds the strength to give just as much to the next child, knowing that her heart might be broken each time.
I could not be with my sister today. As we do in my family, I called her phone as soon as I awakened. Because of the time difference, she had already gone to work, teaching even on Sunday, even on her birthday. I sang into the voice mail, off-key but lusty. Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday TO MY BIG SISTER! Happy birthday TOOOOOO YOUUUUU! After the recording ended, I found myself whispering: And many more. It was a prayer, more than anything; and a selfish one at that.
It’s the sixteenth day of the one-hundred and twelfth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.