A Tale of Two Sisters
“Vicki & Debi”
My sister and I were born 14 months apart. She had been conceived during the period of time when I was being used as a guinea pig in a clinical trial that was searching for a cure for tuberculosis, which I had. I’d received it as an unintentional gift from my mother who was, at that time, a young pathologist in training. She and my father had met in med school. She’d gotten TB too, but since she was a valuable adult, she was shipped off to Cuba to “take the rest cure” at my grandmother’s house because, at that time, there was no cure for the disease other than lying down. I had been deemed dispensable as babies usually died rather quickly from it, so I got to be part of the eventually successful attempt to find a cure.
Because of my somewhat challenging start in life, by the time my sister had reached three or four or so, we were the same size, and since my mother adored being fawned over, she dressed us as twins. I don’t know how my sister felt about it and I never asked her. I loved her. I wasn’t going to fuss at her for something my mother did. I hated it. It felt, in retrospect, as though I were a part of something as opposed to being a whole, integral being, worthy on my own of whatever compliments were being handed out.
I don’t know how old I was when the accident happened that changed my sister’s life forever. We were very young, not yet in school and our personalities had just begun to take shape. We were both shy, but she was more so. I was always ‘the advance guard’ in any situation and always the more adventurous, which is partially to say that she would never do anything wrong. Also, I was the more curious. I asked a lot of questions and ‘investigated’ things I might not supposed to have been investigating.
In the backyard of our home, we had a “log cabin” where she and I had pretend tea parties and played with our dolls. We also had a swing set that was not exactly top-of-the-line. It had a narrow, short, flimsy slide that wasn’t even worth climbing the stairs to… but… the next-door neighbors had a real, playground-quality slide that stood on its own. The slide was wide, and the ladder was high, and they never fussed about me using it.
One early evening — pre-dinner, cocktail hour for my parents — I determined to get some sliding in before I was compelled to “sit still” and eat things I probably wouldn’t want to eat, like calves’ brains and broccoli. My sister — Debi was her name — tagged along. I had discovered that the neighbor’s sliding board had more potential than the feeble excuse for the one that we had in our backyard, and I was keen to show Debi a new thing she could do… not that she wanted to.
I grabbed her hand and dragged her reluctant self over to the slide because, after all, dinner time would be soon, and we should be ready to be called in. Having surrendered to my insistence, she did as I instructed and stood behind me, under the slide. I reached up over my head and grabbed the metal guard rails that were above me, on the sides of the slide and instructed her to do the same. I told her that we would be like monkeys and slide our hands up the rails, first one side and then the other, till our feet got off the ground, and then, when we got as high up as we could get, we’d just drop to the ground. I’d done it tons of times, I told her, and it was really fun.
I demonstrated. She watched and didn’t say a word. After I’d dropped to the ground, I walked to the low end of the slide, facing front, and she stepped into place behind me. I gave the word to start, and we were off… but what I didn’t realize was that the sliding board — which had never been designed for that particular activity — was ever so slowly coming lose from its moorings.
Then I felt it… I felt it go. I reached back and grabbed her hand to pull her free, along with me, from the downward arc of the plummeting slide. But Debi had never been one to be told what to do, not by me or by anyone else of small stature, and with all her might she pulled free of my hand and, the momentum we’d set in motion set her directly in the path of the falling slide.
The next thing I knew, her head was pinned to the ground and there was blood… a lot of blood. I ran to the bar where our parents sat, discussing their day over cocktails and I screamed. “The sliding board fell on Debi and her nose is bleeding.” They sprang from their seats and ran out the back door to the neighbor’s yard. My father lifted up the slide as my mother slid Debi’s non-responsive body out from under it. I watched him feel her throat, looking for a heartbeat.
“She’s alive!” he announced. “No time to call for help.”
That was quickly followed by instructions to my mother to back the car out of the garage. He caried my sister as if she might break with the slightest wrong move and, as my mother got out of the car, now in the wide end of the driveway, he shouted to her again to go into the house and get clean rags, or towels, something to quell the flow of blood. When she got back, she headed for the driver’s seat.
“No!” he shouted. “I’ll drive. Get in the passenger seat. I’ll hand her to you.” After doing so, he took one of the now bloody rags, rolled down the passenger-side window, stuffed the dripping crimson piece of cloth into the opening and rolled the window up to keep it in place. “This’ll tell the police all they need to know.” My father’s hobby was race-car driving. He was in his element.
They made it to the hospital in time. And she made it. But she was never the same. She spent months in the hospital and over a year after that at home, in bed, unable to walk. It was a slow, slow process and, not long after that, we would both endure treatment at the hands of my maternal grandparents, who felt us to be “less-than” simply because we had skin that more resembled that of my Cuban father than it did theirs. Short on cash, they’d trafficked us for extra money. I had been able to distance myself from what was happening to me, but she had not and had been punished by them in numerous ways, including being shut in the trunk of their Cadillac for the trips to and from the venue.
Despite my best efforts to soothe and calm and support her, that particular activity seemed to distance her from me for decades. The relationship we’d once had seemed to disappear. By the time we were in junior high school she was barely civil to me. The year after I started college, still living at home, she went off to a nearby woman’s college, developed a crush on one of the male teachers, began stalking him and ended up in a psychiatrist’s office. She felt, she’d told the doctor, that men were after her, always lurking behind something, waiting to rape her. She was diagnosed as a delusional paranoid schizophrenic and released from the school.
The trafficking had had exact opposite effects on us from the standpoint of boys. She avoided them at all costs while I… didn’t. Quite the contrary. Once she was old enough to have something to say about her own life, Debi became a member of the Hare Krishna cult having discovered that they were not permitted to have sex except for the purpose of procreation and, even then, only once a month. I, on the other hand, was indulging in sex pretty much anywhere I could find it… even after I married. I had hoped that marriage, and then, children, would stop me… but they didn’t.
So, there we were, my sister and I, flip sides of the same coin. Perhaps trying to get as far away as she could from her roots, she eventually moved to California and joined a temple there but after some years, relationships within the temple began to deteriorate and she found herself with nowhere to go… until my (third and current) husband suggested that she come to live with us for a while and we’d see what we could find for her nearby. She borrowed money for her plane fare, and she stayed with — and then near — us for a while… and we got it back… we got that tea-party in the log cabin back… at least for a while. I was glad for that, and she was… content. But she missed the companionship of the like-minded Hare-Krishna folk.
The sister I’d gotten back was so frail that she bruised just brushing past a tree branch… and she missed her independence terribly. We live in the middle of nowhere and she’d spent most of her life in cities. She’d never learned how to drive and was, needless to say, at a loss for like-minded individuals so we set about trying to find a place for her that was both warmer and closer to civilization. Eventually we found a place that she would accept, and my husband drove all her many trunks to San Antonio, Texas while I put her on a plane a few days later. He picked her up and got her as settled as was possible. Before he left, knowing how shy she was and figuring that the likelihood of her making any connections there was slim to none, he introduced her to the internet and taught her how to navigate that world.
She tolerated her existence there and lived a hermit-like existence, contacting her younger siblings (there were nine of those by then) when she needed extra cash or a prescription (a few of the siblings had gone into medicine), and she’d connect with me, when she wanted more pictures of Krishna as she had no printer. She’d had a son from her marriage, but he had distanced himself from her though he, too, now lived in Texas. When she began to experience the signs of blood poisoning — the result of a simple scratch — he came through and went to her. She refused treatment, though, knowing full well that she would die. He stayed with her till the end… and called me when she’d gone.
The world had nothing to offer her because she wouldn’t — more likely couldn’t — let it in. Our childhood had broken her irreparably.
Her ashes were sent to me and, while I had most of them buried, I have a small decorative glass jar of them the I keep in the glove compartment of my car, a remembrance of all our shopping trips while she’d been here, staying with me. Every once in a while, I take the jar out and hold it and remember the challenge of her love… and it brings tears to my eyes every time I do.