Many years ago, I stuck an old family photo on the filing cabinet in my office. It seemed funny at the time. In the fading snapshot, circa 1971, I’m five, dressed in a red nylon nightgown that no amount of flame retardant could render safe by today’s standards, mugging for the Instamatic with my best movie star smirk, which doesn’t combine well with the tortoise shell glasses my mother unwisely allowed me to choose myself. I have an arm flung back, as an obvious afterthought, and in that hand is a baby bottle, attached to the mouth of my younger sister, Jenny, who is standing just behind me in her playpen, wide-eyed, sucking.
That photo pretty much sums up my relationship with my sister for our first 30 years or so, except that snapshot is odd in that I was actually in any kind of contact with her at all. My mother meant to have us close together, but two miscarriages – and, as a result, four and a half years – divided us. To be fair, it’s likely that even if we were Irish twins, Jenny and I would have remained generations apart. She’s always been shy, sweet and popular, eager to slip into the crowd without getting noticed. I’m the opposite – brash, bitchy, anti-social from birth but begging for attention. We never hit it off. I was already in kindergarten when she was born, accustomed to ruling the roost and not at all pleased by an interloper.
By the time she made it to high school, I was already off to college. We were never in the same social stratosphere long enough to give it a chance, and so we entered adulthood in an uncertain détente – no longer hitting or name calling, but certainly not friends. We got drunk and stood up at each other’s weddings, but it wasn’t until we found ourselves pregnant at the same time that she became my best friend. We finally had something in common, and it carried us both through two pregnancies. As our oldest kids approach six, we still talk on the phone several times a day. I don’t know what I would do without her.
And so you can see why I was eager for Annabelle, my oldest, to have a little sister – not too little, close enough so they’d grow up together as the friends Jenny and I have become, united against the world and their dorky but lovable parents.
(continued at right)
Sophie was born 22 months after Annabelle. Yet every day since, it seems, the two sisters slip just a little farther apart. They’re both thriving, both at the top of their classes, but even at three, the standards are already far lower for Sophie. Annabelle still doesn’t know the name for Down syndrome, but I can’t fool myself: She knows Sophie is different. And here’s the magical thing, at least for this month, this day, this moment... she doesn’t care.
I spend a lot of time worrying about whether I’ve ruined Annabelle’s life, but the truth is that even I -- negative and guilt-ridden; head up, watching for the sky to fall -- can’t deny that for today, Sophie is the best thing that ever happened to Annabelle. Yes, of course, Sophie bugs her like any little sister would. She grabs Annabelle’s “special blankie,” knocks over her tea party, splashes her in the bath tub. But that’s usually followed by a 20 minute giggle-fest, in which Sophie patiently allows Annabelle to decorate her entire head with a Seuss-esque bubble bath ‘do. And lately, Sophie’s been insisting that Annabelle be the one to read her a good night book.
The other day, I picked up Annabelle early from school, and offered all sorts of special treats. Would she like to go to the mall, the dollar store, out for ice cream?
“No,” came the reply from the back seat. “I just want to go home and see Sophie.”
This past Sunday, my husband Ray went out for a hike. The girls and I stayed in. Annabelle had a mild case of the flu, so she was convalescing on the couch with “The Best of the Electric Company.” I was trying to talk on the phone, and Sophie was trying to destroy the house. Sophie was winning. I came up behind her just as she opened a cabinet, gently pulled her away from her treasure – Ray’s climbing equipment – and told her “NO,” a little louder than I had intended. I was frustrated, and it showed. I picked her up, phone under my ear, and deposited her softly but abruptly on the couch, turning to end my conversation. I didn’t hear the slow rumble of the toddler tears, you know the kind, the ones that start almost silently, then boil over in near hysteria, zero to 60 in five seconds.
By the time Sophie had begun to wail, I was across the room, and as I turned back to her, I saw that I wasn’t needed. Annabelle was standing over Sophie, a hand on her shoulder, talking quietly to her, stroking her hair.
I only wish I’d had film in my camera.
of material from this site without written permission is strictly prohibited