Today I’d like to take a little time to talk about my sister. Her name is Marcia. She’s a few years my senior, something that doesn’t matter much now, but made a world of difference when I was growing up. She’s always struck me as more adventurous, more outgoing, and more willing to live in the public eye. She is a stronger, more demanding personality.
She married a brilliant, cultured man from the Middle East. I married someone closer to home. She’s traveled much of the world. I’ve been two far-away places, yes, but that’s it. I went to East Africa when I was 16 and Australia 40 years later. I really didn’t get to know my sibling well as a person until we were both adults, and she returned from California to take up residence in the town in which we grew up. Her husband spent much of his career affiliated with a well-known university’s teaching hospital in New York, Columbia-Presbyterian.
When I was a kid, I loved this mysterious sister a lot. Mysterious because she didn’t seem to be home much. She paid a lot of attention to me when she was, however. We sat on the floor in her room and pretended to fly all over the world on a magic carpet ride. “Now we’re flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Do you see the beautiful moonlight on the water below us? Be careful not to fall off the edge of the rug, but if you lean over there, do you see the whale down below?” she pointed as she talked.
She told me amusing stories of two cats that had marvelous adventures. “This is the story of when Oakey and Bokey flew to the moon,” she would say. “They jumped up and rose high, high up into the night sky, passing the sparkling stars.” She should have written kid’s books about these cats, but never did. I thought she was so smart and funny. But as I said, she wasn’t around much.
She went away to boarding school when I was still little. After that, she spent a couple of years working and living in New York, but shortly moved to California, where she lived for many years.
I used to stand with her in her bathroom and watch her put on makeup. She had long hair which she put up into a French knot, using a mirror which extended out from the wall on a metal arm. Sometimes she put makeup on me. “You have to hold still while I do your eyes. Don’t blink.”
I still remember the sweet scent of her perfume. The water was cold and the soap stung when I wiped makeup off with the rough washcloth. “I’ll never be as beautiful as she is,” I thought.
I would visit her in the middle of the night, climbing into the rush of warm air in the bed with her. “Move over please, Marcia,” I would say, and stay for an hour or so. I liked to watch the play of filtered light from the street light outside as it shone through the leaves of the big Maple tree in front of her windows. It was especially lovely on nights when the wind was blowing. After she fell back asleep, I often went and sat on the window seat and looked out the glass at the porch roof over our front door.
Our father had taught me how to escape from the upstairs in case of a fire. “Climb out and wait for the firemen,” he told me. I thought about sitting out there, on a ramp of scratchy asphalt shingles, waiting for firemen, but never climbed out. I could escape from my room to the same roof by exiting my bathroom.
“Maybe one night I’ll climb out my window and go knock to be let in,” I thought. I never did. It was too hard to take out the screen. Good thing, because she probably would have had a heart attack.
My sister had a collection of beautiful china horses in her room, in a locked cabinet with glass doors. I found the key early on, and would take the horses out and play with them on the floor. Over time I played with all of them. The tiny legs would snap with a resounding “c-r-a-c-k.” I carefully balanced the wounded treasure back up on its shelf, taking out the next, unbroken horse and ruining it, too. I only did this when she was gone for long periods. Maybe I did it because I missed her. “Why on Earth did you do that, Chrisy?” she asked once, but I had no answer. I was never punished, either.
A closet on the third floor held some of her fancy dresses. I thought she must have been so beautiful for school parties when she was a teenager. I remember the dresses were way too big, and then they were too small. Then they disappeared. I am much taller than my sister.
I invited myself to her home in California for spring break when I was a senior in high school. She was married and my nephew was a toddler. He had gotten a ride-on motorcycle for Christmas. It had a handle you could turn to make it make the sound of a Harley engine. “V-R-R-O-O-M-M, V-R-O-O-O-O-M” it went, so realistically, loud as all-get-out. It took some work to turn the short crank.
I put concerted effort into teaching my nephew, Marc, to get his little hand to hold it properly. “No, sweetie, hold it like this, and turn it hard,” I would say. “Good job, Marc!” I’d say when he got it going fast. It was only a few decibels less than real. He and I both thought that was hilarious.
My sister was in a Ph.D. program, and her husband worked long hours. I am sure she was happy when I went back home, but I still feel guilty to this day when I think about the noise I left behind. Maybe she never knew it was me who taught her son to love that crank so much.
My sister bought an old, sprawling Victorian house when she moved back east from California. She ended up calling it the family hotel. Her husband, Rashid’s, huge extended family came from overseas and felt free to stay for weeks. Our mother felt free to stay there, too. I had a little house. My brother had an apartment.
“Mom is arriving next week,” she would warn us. We all descended on my sister and felt free to hang out, including Mom’s friends. Holidays were always at her house, too. Nobody else had the room. She never complained. We were wined and dined for free, over and over. Who thought to stay somewhere else?
One night my husband and I were in a nasty car accident, not so far from where we all lived. My husband broke all five of his lumbar vertebrae, and his kidneys were shot. ”Marcia,” I cried on that middle-of-the-night call, “we’ve been in a car accident and I’m in Jacobi Hospital. Billy’s badly hurt. Can you please come?” Of course she came.
My brother-in-law was high up the ladder of doctors at Columbia-Presbyterian. He was Acting Director of Radiology, a thyroid cancer specialist. He was our go-to person for everything medical. We had him talk by phone to the doctor at Jacobi who was dealing with my husband, a mere resident-in-training. The ER resident at Jacobi wanted to shoot my husband full of pain-killers and send him to Rashid’s hospital. Better to be somewhere where you are family members of staff, he thought.
My brother-in-law was a voice of reason in the midst of chaos. He chose to have Billy stay where he was. Who knew what his injuries were? Jacobi is a public hospital, Columbia-Presbyterian is not. You want to be in a public hospital on the weekend, Rashid told us, because on the weekends all the staff disappears at a private one. That means that tests that you might need aren’t ordered. You have to wait until all the “techs” who do the tests, and the doctors who order them, are there. In a public hospital, staff is there all the time. “He’ll get much better care where he is,” Rashid said. “Even if I could help you, there’s no one to run the tests at Columbia.”
I found out the truth of this later that evening. I went with my husband up to the orthopedic floor where he was sent. A doctor met us in the hall as my husband lay on his gurney. He was an older man, and he carried himself with authority. He grilled me about the ER. “The very first thing he complained about was his kidneys,” I told the doctor, “not his back.”
The doctor looked pissed. He turned the gurney around and put us all in the elevator back to the ER. He chewed out the ER resident something awful. “Have you run tests on his kidneys?” he almost yelled. He talked to my brother-in-law, too. When he found out from me the resident had suggested sending my husband to another hospital, he turned purple. They did many more tests on my husband. We ended up in a renal ward. I don’t know what happened to the resident.
Marcia waited patiently for hours while all of this went on. She took me home to her house to stay for a few days while Bill was in the hospital. “I don’t want you to be alone,” she said.
For years that’s how it was. My husband was out-of-town one week. “Marcia, I need a ride to the hospital, my doctor wants me to meet him at the ER. He thinks I’m having a miscarriage.” It was 4:00am. She took me to the hospital. She was there when I woke up from surgery. I stayed at her house after that, too, even though she already had houseguests.
Marcia lives in Florida now. Rashid is retired. She no longer has a house the size of a hotel. I live in Colorado. I haven’t seen her in-person in years. We almost had one of those idiotic falling-outs that sometimes happen in families where siblings stop speaking to each other, forever.
We spent six weeks together, during which time our mother passed away, we had the funeral, and then the two of us went through a huge old house full of six generations of every imaginable thing all those people couldn’t let go of, and decided whether to sell or throw it out. We cleaned the house down to the bare bones to sell it, too. Neither of us wanted to live there.
At the end of all that we were stressed out, angry, grief-stricken, bitchy, and totally unreasonable with each other. “Screw you,” I thought as we parted ways at the airport to go to our respective states.
We are all that’s left of our family of origin. We’re both pretty old now. Somehow we kept talking over all those years since Mom died. We’re good friends again.
“Chrisy, I have to tell you I had an MRI yesterday and the radiologist thinks I have a hip fracture, and a torn ligament. I’m going later this week to talk to the orthopedist about what could have caused this. I’ve had a lot of pain over the last few months,” she told me by phone.
My mind raced. “Maybe she has bone cancer. Your hip doesn’t fracture for nothing, does it? They said she might have to be put in a cast. Our brother battled cancer. It wasn’t pretty. I haven’t seen her in forever. That makes me a jerk, right?”
Turns out her problem might not be that dire. They’ll know in a few weeks. I better plan to get to Florida soon. Gosh, I love my sister.