It’s an odd thing to be a sister whose little brother has died.
The sister is not the wife who tended to him for 42 years, who devoted her existence to making sure he lived longer than anyone could have predicted. The sister is not responsible for orchestrating his diabetes care, his two kidney transplants, his quintuple by-pass, or for guarding his limbs with her life so that he would die with most of himself intact.
The sister is not the adopted son, the boy-now-man who needed a father and found in the brother a gently adamant hand that guided him through the tumult of adolescence and into an altruistic career.
Nor is the sister the granddaughter he took in at her birth, whom he nurtured, fed, coddled, and adored while his wife, her grandmother, worked to support them all when he had been forced into early retirement. The granddaughter who ran to her Poppi whenever her feelings were hurt or her path confused her.
Or the 9-year-old niece who came to visit and stayed till she graduated from college, married a surgeon, attended law school, and settled in the heartland.
The sister is peripheral. She has no rights to the mourning. She knows that the wife, the son, the granddaughter, and the niece own the wailing rights. And who is this sister to suffer from his loss?
After all, all this sister is is the grown-up child into whose hands her grandmother placed this brother when he arrived home from the hospital on his fourth day of life. She is the person who hardly remembers life before there was this brother, whom she didn’t always like but never failed to love.
It was she who caught him when he fell off the neighbor’s garage roof pretending to be Davy Crockett on the trail of Big Bad Mike Fink. She is the one who ran to get Daddy when little brother climbed a telephone pole in the aftermath of a hurricane and tried to use his new tool kit to fix a live electric wire. It was she who walked him to school on his first day of Kindergarten, when his hearing was still returning from near-deafness. She stood guard over him while he played with gusto, alone and jubilant, on the playground. When the principal called them in, and he didn’t hear, the principal grabbed his ear to pull him inside. It was the sister who pushed the woman’s hand away. “Don’t you dare touch my little brother,” she screamed. “He didn’t hear you.”
No. She didn’t always like him. At times she hated him. He could be a tyrant, barging in on her bathroom time, teasing her about her appearance, robbing her of time alone when she wanted to write. Then there was her abject jealousy. He was more popular. He had a broader grin. He was cute and funny. Which she was not. And he got sick. A lot. Which meant people took care of him. That’s why she crawled into bed with him and licked his breakfast fork when he had the Asian flu. It was her turn, and though she nearly died for her trouble, she was never sorry. For once the brother tended to her and brought her soup and news from the schoolyard. He found her shivering and brought a cover from his own bed.
She coaxed him to read, to write, to expound his wisdom. In his last year in high school, he spent a week with her in her New York apartment working on an essay and a speech he was to give in a competition. He won the contest and got an A on the paper, and she was not the least bit surprised. She always knew he was smarter than he thought he was.
The sister’s life did not depend on his, but then she always thought he’d be somewhere she could reach him. He could be a great comfort . . . and he could be a painful cyst. Either way, he was there. She always knew he might precede her into the void. She just never believed it.
So odd to be the sister whose little brother has died.