Monday, May 4, 2009

My Sister, Myself

I spent the weekend in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. Whitehorse is Juneau's sister city. I didn't spend much time in the city limits, since I was helping out at a leadership retreat for high schoolers, but according to a friend who was more familiar with the city, they are a lot alike. While waiting to get my iced tea at the Baked Cafe, full of healthy whole grain and spelt scones, organic everything, and fully compostable to-go cups, I thought that it was comfortable, that I could imagine spending time here, much like I spend time in Juneau.

When I returned to Juneau, I got a phone call from my sister. I have lots of sisters, actually, but my sister who is closest in age is THE sister. For some reason we have this bond that is very special. I don't know if it is something that happens to all sisters who are close in age or if it has to do with how we had to share a room up until I left for college or how we always had shared birthday parties because our birthdays were only a little over a month apart or if it was because we had only each other in whom to confide through all the rough patches in our lives. Either way, I think that there is a relationship that can be recognized through time that is magical enough that they would call them sister cities and not brother cities. A relationship that, perhaps, not every sister experiences. A relationship that surpasses many in meaning and strength and the ability to affect all other aspects of life.

This soul entwining sisterly bond is beautiful. It is having someone in the world who will do anything to understand you and who can usually succeed in it. It is having someone who has shared many of life's experiences. It is having someone whose heart possibly beats the same rhythm and pace. Whose eyes see the same exact hues. Whose ears hear the same exact notes. Whose fingers feel the same sting of pain on that one to ten scale. Whose tastebuds know that mom's meat loaf is pretty gross.

The bond is also difficult. Sharing all this doesn't mean the sisters are the same people, that they are bound to make the same or similar decisions, that they will lead similar lives or that they will react the same way to some very serious stuff. It just means that, whatever happens, the other sister will share in the joy and pain and suffering and confusion that comes with all of these different experiences.

Some months ago, perhaps half a year ago or more, my sister went through some trying circumstances. Where I left town, went to college and eventually moved to Alaska, my sister stayed in town, tried and left behind college and eventually moved out of the house while still keeping much closer ties with the family. I, perhaps selfishly, forged on to build my own life, completely independent of the ups and the downs of a rather tumultuous family situation. My sister found herself there in the midst, throwing herself further into it, and using drugs and alcohol as a temporary escape. She started going to rehabilitation meetings which would sometimes help curb the habits, sometimes not. She was, one night, arrested for driving under the influence, passed out with her head resting on her arm on the steering wheel of her still running parked car, just past the dirt road on which my family resides.

I remember most of those phone calls. The call in which my sister confesses that she has a real problem. The call in which my mother tells me that my sister is passed out on a concrete block in a jail cell. The call in which my sister tells me that she is thinking about moving out of my parents' house but worries about our younger sisters. The call in which my mother asks me questions, trying to get me to tell my sister's secrets. I remember the stress building up in me, back aches and head aches, I remember chain smoking clove cigarettes on my lunch hour, listening to how much alcohol had been consumed, how much coke had been inhaled, how much ecstasy and how she knew it was a problem. I remember crying and feeling helpless, hoping that a concrete block was rock bottom, though rock bottom can be much, much lower. I remember trying to save all my money to fly my sister to see me. I remember thinking about moving back to Central Oregon, thinking that my presence might somehow make something even slightly better.

Recently there has been a calm. A peace. Everyone seems to be doing OK from this distant vantage. I talk to my mother on the phone sometimes, she assures me that everything is wonderful. My high school aged sister went to her first prom, and though she had scared us all with a bout of depression and some angsty cutting, she is the picture of high school happiness these days. The youngest is nearing fourth grade, happy and healthy, smart and adorable as ever. Even my dad and I manage to have a talk now and then, talking about weather perhaps, trying to avoid talking about my crazy left-wing politics. My sister is dating someone who treats her well and who, for the first time, has drawn out from her the words, "I love you."

But that calm can only be the metaphorical calm before the storm, or the breathless eye of the storm that is our family life. It can only be that. And true to the way a story always seems to go, I got a phone call that changes lives. I called Alaska Airlines and changed the last leg of my trip. Instead of flying from New York to Seattle to Juneau, I will fly from Seattle to Redmond. I don't have a return ticket, though return I must, if only to take care of the life I've been building here these last two years. On midnight, the very start of May 28th, my second Juneau-versary and the day my youngest sister hits the double digits in age, I will arrive exhausted at my parents' home and figure out just how entwining this sisterly bond is.

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