In the autumnal aftermath of the dissolution of my first marriage, I took a job and a leap of faith across two states to begin a new life. Amidst my feelings of disappointment and failure were the seeds of possibility and anticipation as I resolutely vowed to rediscover myself. I had called upon several old colleagues to dig up whatever remnants of a professional past I might have had prior to my wedding and hoped at least one job opportunity would reveal itself. Several long distance interviews later, I secured a position in Connecticut, something I was sure would stick for a while. I had one small problem, in the form of my toddler son, who obviously required daily care. I worried about the expense of daycare and in a moment of desperation, I asked my younger sister Sarah to come live with me and watch Max throughout the fall and into the winter. I would pay her wages and provide her with room and board.
Although I tried to persuade myself that asking for Sarah’s help in this time of personal crisis was something anyone with family would do, I was not without reservations about it. Of my three younger sisters, Sarah was closest in age to me, but furthest apart in temperament and personality. A freelance journalist working on her master’s degree and still living at home with my mother and her husband, she was the eternal student, full of plans and prospects that rarely panned out. Incredibly intelligent, but sometimes lacking common sense; she had the characteristics of someone who might have been diagnosed with a form of Asberger’s. With the ability and ambition to have a conversation with anyone but in a way that may have alienated some, she had a somewhat tentative and halting way of speaking sometimes, as if gathering her thoughts before each statement. Sarah always seemed to be moving in slow motion, and my impatience and irritation with her dreaminess had created a void between us in recent years. I felt older and wiser than her in almost every way possible, and yet here I was, faced with the collapse of my own conclusions on how life should be lived, practically begging for her help. The irony was not lost on me, but with a genuine concern for my wellbeing and without as much as a finger wag, Sarah agreed to stay and care for her nephew.
I had rented a fairly large, cheap but somewhat decrepit apartment which would provide plenty of room for the three of us. Determined to cling to an altruistic motivation rather than a selfish one, I had convinced myself that I was also offering Sarah an opportunity to grow as a person. Living at home at the age of 29 was not healthy, I reasoned, and the somewhat claustrophobic house of my mother, her husband and their eight dogs certainly couldn’t allow Sarah the freedom to become a full-fledged adult. Living with me was one step closer to living by herself – a goal I felt was in her best interest and within her capacity once given the chance to get closer to it.
Sarah took her care-taking responsibilities to heart and provided my son with a loving and compassionate environment while I was at work. One and a half year old Max, having recently eased out of a phase during which he refused to leave my side, adapted remarkably well to my sister’s custody. The two took walks through the neighborhood while the weather remained warm enough and did crafts of various sorts that were hung carefully on the refrigerator door for my inspection when I returned home. Throughout a bout of even pickier eating than usual that so worried a local doctor’s assistant that she labeled Max ‘failing to thrive’, Sarah kept religiously meticulous notes on his diet and diapers for two weeks to provide evidence that genetics rather than malnutrition was the culprit for his tiny size.
As we settled into our routines, and I began to revel in my new-found independence, I found a confidante in Sarah, and began to remember what a selfless, loving person she was. Work gossip, family griping, even potential romantic interests – Sarah provided an open ear and a supportive sounding board for me. Not like some roommate, but like my sister, who always knew what I needed to hear, always took my side, and seemed more worried about my wellbeing than her own. A sister who seemed to thrive on my conversation. But, it was always about me. Whenever the exchange turned to her and my lofty thoughts for how she could and should improve her life, she carefully and graciously brought it back around to my issues, which I was usually happy to talk more about.
Eventually, I began to take advantage of Sarah’s generosity. Drunk on freedom (and Chardonnay), I went out at night on occasion returning home too tipsy to have driven and suffered Sarah’s anxious concern over my state. I dismissed her distress with the assurance of a teenager and briefly felt like I was the younger sister with Sarah scolding me like a mother hen while I laughed off her fears.
Regularly, our own mother would call to speak to Sarah after enduring an argument with her husband. The increasing frequency of their disagreements seemed directly related to Sarah’s absence in their home and she worried about the state of their marriage. “You are not their referee,” I reminded her, even as I grew gradually more dependent on Sarah’s role in my own household, but I could see Sarah’s concern. As winter approached, Sarah began to talk about her plans for going back to my mother’s house and once again I begged her to stay. In many ways, I had become as dependent on her and her support as I now realized my mother was. Sarah with her generous heart and anxious head, worrying about you so that you didn’t have to. Or perhaps so she didn’t worry about herself.
I thought if I could create a better motivation for her to stay, she would. I found her a freelance writing job locally, but she found reasons to decline it. She talked vaguely about professional commitments she had back in Pennsylvania, and eventually I stopped arguing. They were my arguments; for what I wanted for her, and I certainly couldn’t force her to listen. I found daycare for Max and she left after Christmas. Without the intimacy of our living arrangement, our interactions returned to what they had been – those of two sisters living very different lives, their connection increasingly growing more distant and faint.
When Sarah died suddenly in 2009, a storm of emotions and regrets consumed me that I still battle to this day. I judged myself as harshly as I had ever judged my sister. The one sweet note in the symphony of inner discord that I have suffered through has been the memory of that one autumn that I had a chance to spend with Sarah.