This story is about my sister and me.
I am the second oldest of four children. My older sister is 10 months older than me. “Irish twins,” adults would say to us, wiggling their eyebrows up and down and chuckling. Foolish, I thought as a child, because she looked nothing like me. I didn’t understand at the time that the term was a way of poking fun at poor, Irish Catholic families who presumably didn’t have access to birth control.
For two months of each year, my sister and I are the same age. When we were little, I would long for my birthday month to arrive so I could jubilantly remind her of this – “You can’t tell me what to do now!” I would shout. “I’m just as old as you are!” We shared a bedroom (and a bunk bed), and I remember leaning over the end of the bed from the top bunk, dangling my arms down, and walking my fingers along the windowsill in my own comedic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood," making my sister and myself giggle or sometimes laugh outright momentarily, before muting the sound suddenly and fiercely with our hands.
Though we’re close in age, we haven’t always known each other the way we do now. She used to tell me, “We can’t be friends, we’re sisters!” Recently she confessed that she spent most of our adolescence thinking I was perpetually angry with her. To be honest, I was jealous – of her perfectly tanned skin, her logical and rational thinking, and her large group of friends. With my frizzy red hair, pale skin, and an embarrassing inability to restrain my emotions, I felt that we could not be more different.
After surviving the chaotic instability of our abusive childhood, we each went our own way. I started working for a faith-based non-profit organization; she became an atheist and a teacher. I can’t point to the exact moment when we became friends. I just know that at some point in our adulthood, between phone calls and texts and visits to each other’s houses, we found that our differences, instead of being divisive, were intriguing. Our visits became longer, and our conversations deeper.
Then she got sick.
She spent almost three months in the hospital, at times too weak to walk or even eat. I would drive down from Chicago to visit her, to distract her from the pain and to distract both of us from the fear that she might not recover. I gave her my expert advice on the most cheerful movies to watch (Baby Mama, yes! Revolutionary Road, no!) and gave the nurses the evil eye if they took too long bringing her medications to her.
I became the logical, reasoning sister – assuring her that the doctors would, in fact, find out what was causing her symptoms and would find a treatment that worked. And she became the emotional sister for once. She cried, sometimes wept, her arms wrapped around herself, curled up in the hospital bed in pain, asking me if I thought she was going to die. I would lie and say no, I know you won’t die, I know your son won’t be left without a mother. I would drive back and forth to Chicago, sobbing, alternately cursing at God and begging God to heal her.
There was so much I wanted to do for her but couldn’t. I didn’t have answers for what was happening to her body. I couldn’t make her feel better when the pain got worse. I felt helpless, transported back to when we were kids and she would cry inconsolably, or worse, stare silently into the distance, unmoving, refusing to interact with me at all.
So I did what I had throughout so much of our childhood – I helped her imagine that we were somewhere else. I told her it was time for a pedicure, and I brought in some bright colors of nail polish for her to choose from. As I painted her nails, I told funny stories about my life in Chicago, gave her spoilers of movies I had seen, and related my latest home repair fails. In return, she laughed and pretended not to notice what a hack job I was doing on her nails.
My sister survived that illness, as she has survived so many other things in her life. We celebrated together when she was finally able to leave the hospital, but I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief for months, calling and texting to check on her far too often. And she endured it with the sisterly patience she had always had with me. Well, almost always.
Sometimes the intimacy that is formed during times of crisis is temporary. When things go back to normal, people lose touch. They start remembering their differences and forgetting their commonalities as the mundane activities of ordinary life take over. But sometimes, you get lucky. Sometimes the intimacy that is built over shared experiences and differing opinions, over questions and grief and suffering and laughter and recovery (in all its forms) tightens the knot between two people.
This story is about my sister and me. And how we became friends.
Jen Casselberry is a painter, sculptor, and mixed media artist living in the Chicago area. Through visual art and writing, her work explores themes of power, vulnerability, beauty, and violence. Her work can be found at: jencasselberry.com.