Birthday

The first day of Spring. Her birthday.

I remember, with stark clarity, the day she was born. Mama did not have an easy breezy labor; my sister never would do anything the easy way, complicating even her own entrance into the world. Way back then, the hospital maintained a strict visitation policy, quite different from today, when we allow anybody and everybody access at all hours. I was smuggled in to see Mama, and was caught by the nurse. The nurse was amused when my Meir promised only fifteen minutes, and she kept her word.

Four days later, Mama came home, and brought along a squirming bundle of…well, her. I had no idea what to do with her. Meir taught me how to feed her, how to hold the bottle at the proper angle, and how to burp her. Mama was still in pain for several days, and I adjusted quickly to my new role. She was a fussy little thing, always hungry, and forever squirming. Two things worked to calm her: riding in the car, and being held in my lap. She spent most of her first year in my lap. As she grew, she became the ideal picture of the American girl. Everyone we knew commented on her beauty, and if they could not remember her name, they simply referred to her as “the pretty one”. I was jealous, of course, but even I have to admit she was indeed beautiful, cherubic.

It became my life’s purpose to surround her with protection, from any perceived or actual threat. I took punishment for her; I intervened and drew criticism away from her; I got in schoolyard fights protecting her. She cried herself to sleep hiding with me in the closet from thunderstorms, while I made up stories and poems to try and calm her. Our lives were not easy. We spent many nights in that closet. Her favorite story for me to tell was one in which I grew up, built a giant house, and she had her own suite. She would cook and clean, and be domestic. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, really. She was an excellent cook, loved to clean, and appeared to be quite maternal.

Cracks in her veneer didn’t become obvious to me until I was a senior in high school. I spent far more time away from home than in it. I knew I could not stay there, and home was an increasingly hostile environment. I assumed she would be fine, maybe even better, if I left. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I left that house at seven in the morning, the day after my graduation. I was gone before she woke up.

I barreled down the road, in pursuit of my own dreams, and left hers behind. Within six months, I barely recognized her. She was easily influenced and caught up with the wrong friends. They used her, and left her holding the bag. She quickly became an expert manipulator, working the system herself. She called only to beg me to rescue her from whatever latest mess she was in. And I always did. I enabled her. I loved her. I took her failures and weaknesses very personally, as if she had no accountability or culpability for her own actions. Once she entered the cycle of addiction, self-destruction, rehabilitation, and recovery, she was never able to escape it. The cycle repeated over, and over, and over. Somehow, I still believed in her; I had to. If I didn’t, who would?

It has been three years since I’ve seen her. I thought I was hardened and emotionally separated enough to be unaffected by that visit. I was wrong. It is difficult to truly break my heart, but once broken, it takes far too long for me to process, heal, and forgive. It has been three years, and I haven’t even come close to healing. I choose to further distance myself, even though I could traverse three layers of electric fencing and razor wire, if I had the strength. I hear of her, and her daily life, through third parties, but I never ask. I cannot even pray for her. I want to. I know I’m supposed to. But I can’t. Yet.

For the last twenty years I’ve accepted the failures on her behalf, feeling deep down that I am ultimately responsible for the wake of destruction she’s left behind. If I’d stayed there, with her, I could have prevented the downward spiral. I can’t go back. I can’t save her from herself. I can’t save the world from her, and I can’t yet forgive myself.  Every year on her birthday, I withdraw a bit more. Once upon a time, we showered her with gifts and parties. It must be increasingly painful for her, celebrating her birthday year after year without the love or acknowledgement of her family.

This year, I refuse to withdraw. I intend to acknowledge the years we spent relying on each other. She is my sister. Deep down, I hope she remembers how much I love her. I choose to disregard the last image ingrained on my heart from our last visit together. I wish to remember how beautiful she once was, when she was last genuinely happy. She is my sister. And I love her.

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