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My Sister's Keeper

By Michelle Kennedy

This comforter makes me too warm, but when I push it off my shoulders, I am cold again. I turn on my side, trying desperately to ease the pain in my lower back. I arch forward, then back. No relief. But I didn’t really expect any. I flip onto my back again and listen. I listen as a car pulls into the parking lot outside my ground floor apartment. My heart begins to pound. I want it to be her, but I don’t want another confrontation. My patio doors overlook the parking lot, so I hear most of what goes on out there. I hear the car’s engine cease and then a car door open and slam shut. Heels on the sidewalk, then up the stairs until they fade away. It’s not her.

I sit up halfway and squint at the red numbers of my digital clock across the room. I put it across the room because I am in love with the snooze bar and putting it on my dresser ensures that I will get up in the morning, early enough to enjoy 30 minutes of silence before my one- and two-year-old get up and take over the day. 2:47 the red numbers appear to read. I make a fist and bring this makeshift telescope to my right eye. I peer through and see that the time really is 2:47 a.m. This is a trick my mother showed me a long time ago, a way to see something quickly without having to put on your glasses. I thought she was kidding, but it works.

2:47 a.m. Why am I shocked? This is hardly the first time she’s been late. She’s always late. I was a fool to believe that imposing a curfew would have any kind of effect. In my head, I am suddenly raging. My body is perfectly still, but my mind races. How dare she? How dare she just do as she pleases after all I’ve done for her? Who does she think I am? I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried being super-cool about the friends that show up at my door with six-packs and “bowls” in their pockets. I’ve tried laying down the law and forbidding her to do anything except going to school and her part-time job. Nothing works. She does as she pleases. She climbs out windows and brazenly walks past me, and the children, to the front door, never missing an opportunity to stick her nose in the air or flip me off on the way.

“You’re not my mother,” she screams, when I try and set some rules. And that’s what it comes down to: I’m not her mother.

But her mother, who is my mother too, couldn’t take it anymore. Convinced that what Beth needed was to live in her old hometown again and be around her old friends, my parents finally relented and let her do what she claimed was best for her. So, one winter day, my father brought my sister to me; the me newly invigorated by Mothering Magazine and John Holt’s homeschooling doctrines. The hippie, earth mother, breastfeeding, cloth-diapering, will-be-ever-understanding, swear-to-not-raise-my-children-like-my-parents-did, me. In essence, the naïve and stupid me who was convinced that my parents just “didn’t understand” my teenage sister, and that what she needed was someone who had been there, fairly recently.

Before I knew it, I was not only the 23-year-old mother of two children under two, but the legal guardian of one 16-year-old with attitude. The first week was brilliant. She helped clean up, she babysat, she invited her friends over and they watched TV.

“What’s so hard about this?” I thought.

It was nice having an extra pair of hands around. And I was feeling pretty smug thinking about how easy Beth was to deal with and wondering what my parents found so difficult. Maybe they were just getting soft, I thought. Maybe I was too much of a “goody-goody” to prepare them for a real teenager. But I could handle it. I knew I could. What was there to handle? Nothing, really, at least not until those extra hands started finding their way into my purse; it took my husband and I a couple of weeks to realize that it wasn’t the other who was grabbing a few twenties at a time from the ATM machine.

I’ve drifted off to sleep, just barely, when I hear a car door slam and then her laugh: a laugh I used to tease her about when we were smaller, a laugh not unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, which seems somehow appropriate now. I can tell by the way she fumbles to put her key in the door that she’s drunk. This doesn’t surprise me. It’s the only reason she goes out. It’s strange to me because I have never been drunk once and I don’t understand the appeal. It’s not that I feel superior because I’ve never been drunk, although I do, it’s more that I’ve never been able to find anything I liked the taste of enough to drink it until I got drunk. I’ve also spent the last four years of my life pregnant and nursing, which meant that even on my 21st birthday I couldn’t have anything stronger than a wine cooler.

Rather than get up and greet her, I decide to just let her stumble in and pass out. Life is easier that way. I wonder now if that’s what my parents decided too. I’ll have to get up soon, though, and turn off the T.V. she’ll no doubt turn up too loudly and then arrange her on her sofa bed in a way that won’t frighten the children when they get up. After my husband, Tom, goes to work, I’ll get her to move into my bed, where she can sleep until it’s time for her to go to school. This she does with amazing clarity. I am shocked every morning because even after only four or five hours of sleep, she will get up, shower and then go to school, where she does quite well. I’m pleased that I don’t have to fight that battle, but the sister in me is jealous that she can screw around and still do well in school. I hate her for that, because it makes her look like an angel. Her teachers all tell me how well she’s doing and how the change must have been good for her. I smile and nod and think about the glass she threw me at the morning before because I asked her to baby-sit while I went to a job interview.

“You can’t make me!” she said.

“Oh yes I can,” I said. How, I thought.

“How?” she said.

I blathered about not letting her see her boyfriend for a week, which she sneered at. I have to admit to almost laughing out loud myself. In the end, she agreed to do it, but on the day of the interview she went out and didn’t return. I really wanted the job, so I brought the little ones along. Fortunately, the managers who interviewed me were impressed with my “grace under fire,” or some such thing, and gave me the job.

I was infuriated and completely confused. Why was this so hard? Asking my parents for help was out. I was, after all, out to prove them wrong. I was as defiant about that as my sister was about everything else. And, so, books on raising teenagers quickly replaced the milestone books I so often consulted for my two little ones. I read everything there was on the topic and my sister soon became the receptacle for my newfound wisdom and knowledge.

I tried every technique I could find, anything that seemed like it would close the chasm of understanding and respect between us. Nothing worked and I was at a loss. What’s more, my own children were suffering because of it. Staying up late at night worrying about Beth made me short-tempered and tired the next day--well, days. I was stressed out, and would become more so when I realized that Beth wasn’t--not one bit. She couldn’t care less about how frightened I had become or how much I cared about what she was doing with her life. I had to let her go.

Once I did, I slept much better at night. I asked where she was going and got her to agree to give me a call occasionally, but other than that, I tried to view her more as a tenant than as a charge.

She didn’t stay much more than a year. As she neared graduation, she found an apartment with some friends close by and I let her go. I felt like I had failed. She’s a grown-up now. I wish I could say that the experience made us stronger, that we bonded and are closer than ever, but it didn’t. We’re two very different people. And the funny thing is, in my family, she’s the responsible one, the good girl, the one who follows all the rules, and I am the hopeless wreck.

 

Michelle Kennedy is the mother of five rambunctious children, a sheep farmer, and the author of Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America (Viking Feb. 2005). Her work has been published in The New York Times, Family Circle, Redbook, The Christian Science Monitor, Salon, Brain, Child, and in many other publications, and has been heard on National Public Radio.

Photo "Twin Sisters" courtesy of Katje Zanetta Borba, Londrina, Brazil.

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