Tuesday, July 15, 2008
When I found out it was a girl, I was disappointed. I already had a sister. I wanted a brother. It was February 4, 1976. My dad had to be at the hospital with my mother, so I spent the night at my friend Lee's house as we awaited the new arrival. I have no idea what they did with Sister J. When the call came, around 8:36 p.m., my dad said "It's a girrrrl!" He sounded thrilled. I felt like crying. Seven years old and I was stuck with another sister. My father tried to console me. He knew I'd wanted a brother. I don't remember what he said, but it didn't work. I got off the phone shellshocked and sad.
When they brought her home the next night, she came through the front door like a UPS package. That's when I saw her for the first time, a small lump clutched in my mother's arms in a thick white blanket. My mother lowered her arms, and I looked closer at the newcomer. What I saw startled me. Peeking out from the middle of the blanket was this tiny red face with two slits for eyes, a pimple for a nose, and another slit for a mouth. My new sister looked like a sunburned lizard. And I couldn't believe how small she was, the size and weight of an underpacked sack of potatoes. I looked closer and saw this helpless, scarlet thing, and I felt sorry for it. Suddenly I felt like I needed to take care of this little person, this interloper. I had to protect it from the world.
Before long, the lizard evolved into a baby who mashed half-chewed Stella Doro cookies against her face like soap and pooped more than I thought humanly possible. The house was invaded by new, unpleasant smells. Baby smells. Filled diaper smells. It wasn't all bad though. Sister J. and I played games with her. We'd hide behind bean bag chairs in the living room, cover ourselves in blankets and call her name. A minute or two later, she'd crawl over and uncover the blanket, then her eyes would get huge and she'd start laughing. Even though we were kids ourselves, Sister J. and I loved it. We loved helping her learn and experience new things. We loved feeding her and teaching her how to walk. It was like having this really intelligent, highly reactive, toy robot to play with.
Time flew by. There she was in grade school, then junior high. I went off to college, then so did Sister J. We left Sister T. to endure my bickering parents by herself, no easy task. When I got to college, I was nervous because I didn't know a soul and I wasn't what you'd call an extrovert who mingled easily. The first few weeks were miserable. Due to a larger than expected freshman class, I got stuck with two roommates I hated, cocky, smarmy pricks who drank like sailors, partied all night, and used biting sarcasm as their preferred mode of communication. In a dorm room made for two, we were crammed in as three. I was the odd man out. Sister T. wrote me every week -- almost every day it seemed -- letters full of love and encouragement. She reminded me that I still had a family and sisters who loved me, that I was still her big brother, even if I felt like a tadpole in an ocean. It helped, more than I realized then. I never really thanked her for it. Two months later, the housing situation eased, and I moved to a new dorm where I made some great friends who are still a part of my life. That's when I got fully immersed into the carefree joy of college life. Even though Sister T. kept writing, my responses to her letters got slower and slower and finally stopped completely.
She went to college herself, years after I did, then applied to law school, years after I did. Then moved to New York and became a lawyer, just like me. That's where the similarity ends. I work in a cushy office on behalf of well-paying corporate clients; she works in a government building representing the neediest of the needy, mentally ill patients who have little or no money, and who no one wants to help. It's a thankless job, where half the time the patients, her clients, think she's the enemy. It doesn't pay a lot, and that's another reason why most people get burned out and leave. She doesn't care. She's giving, sensitive, and occasionally stubborn. She cares about people and she still possesses an innocence that belies her 32 years.
When she walked down the aisle last Saturday, arm-in-arm with my father, who now wears a head of depleted gray hair instead of the full black he had when he brought her home all those years ago, a flood of memories rose up inside me and I nearly lost it. The helpless, red-faced lizard was now a beautiful woman, resplendent in her wedding dress, beaming, happy, and confident. How did the time pass so fast? I choked back my emotion, just like I'd done seconds before, when my seven year-old nephew, looking dapper in his tiny tuxedo, carried the rings down the aisle on top of an ivory pillow. He was so good, so brave, in front of all those people. By contrast, his two sisters -- divas, both of them -- followed him down the aisle as if they owned the church. It was so beautiful and funny, I couldn't take it.
I waited for the exchange of vows before I shed any tears. For all my cynicism about marriage, about how some people approach marriage, when two people commit to each other, and only each other, for life, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, it's an act of courage. It's powerful and poignant. Two people pushing all their chips to the center of the table and saying "I'm all in." That takes guts.
Like the Rush-loving priest with the headset told us on Saturday, marriage is two people joining together, keeping their own identities, but also forming a new one, for a noble purpose. What could be more noble than marriage, when you think about it? When she looked at him and he looked back at her with hope, love, and optimism, it felt pure and good. It felt right. Yeah, it won't be all strawberries and cream. There will be tough times and challenges. We talk about those all the time, don't we? It's all over the place, people saying how difficult marriage is, how many challenges there are, how it may not be worth it. We tend to focus on the marriages that suck, not those that work well.
But some marriages DO work and that shouldn't be forgotten as we dredge through the marital failings of certain people we know. When you go all in, when you find a good person to share your life with, someone who has your back, whose judgment you trust, who loves you for who you are and not for the person they imagine you to be, well.... when that happens, you're not going to have to go through the tough times alone. You'll have someone to go through it with you, to carry you when you need it and to be carried when they do. You'll experience it all with someone who cares for you, who wants the best for you. You'll do it together.
And that's good, right?