Fifty years ago today my older brother, younger sister and I woke up to a snowy world in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I remember standing at the living room window watching my father shovel snow off the driveway. He was like a human snow machine that morning. If I picture it now, I imagine a Saturday morning cartoon (and it was a Saturday!) in which the man's arms and shovel become a whirl, a windmill, the snow spraying like water...Can you see it?
Usually we were allowed to go outside to play in the snow as he worked, but not that morning. That February morning, Dad was all business. And even though our grandparents were visiting, neither they nor our mother were interested in getting three children bundled up and outside. Their minds were on other things. Or I should say, one other thing: the imminent birth of a new brother or sister.
While Dad cleared the driveway, the car was idling, and as soon as he finished, he came in, barely stomping his feet, and whisked Mom back out the door and into the car and away...to the hospital. There's something else I remember about that morning, you see. Not my pregnant mother, and oddly, I don't remember her pregnant, though she definitely was. But I remember standing in the bathroom and seeing blood in the toilet. Just when it was time for her water to break, Mom started hemorrhaging instead. This turned a routine 4th labor and delivery into something far more serious. Especially fifty years ago.
However, hours later, Dad called with the news we had a healthy little sister. RE. Despite the frantic pre-birth moments, she was fine and Mom was fine as well. A week or so later, they came home. I remember sitting on the rocking couch we had in our living room with a pillow on my lap so that I could hold her. I remember how it felt to cup my hand around her head so that I didn't let her fall. She was just like my doll, only living and moving and squeaking. I remember watching her being changed and taking her baths and being fed. I was endlessly fascinated by her. I felt so old--practically grown up--compared to her. I was going on five, you see. And started school about the time she learned to crawl.
(A little perspective, though: our mother wasn't the type to share her babies. She didn't tell me that RE was MY baby. Never. RE was hers. Often, in fact, we older kids were shooed out of the house so Mom could enjoy the baby. That's how our Mom was. She liked babies. Always. Little kids? Not so much.)
RE grew up. As babies should. Before long, she was simply my little sister. In some ways, RE had both the advantage of following after the three siblings at the top, and the disadvantages. We paved the way for her in some things. We were never in the same school, and I'd outgrown dolls just about the time she began really playing well with them. When I was young I wasn't allowed Barbie dolls because my parents thought the shape of her too adult-like (I had a 'Tammy', instead) but five or six years later, they'd changed their minds about that plastic woman-doll. I don't think it hurt RE any--though I do think she started with Skipper, come to think of it. But she also had to bear the brunt of our telling her what to do, teasing her, generally making life pretty miserable. I look back at my part in her childhood now and know I was often inconsiderate. I remember Dad telling me once that she just wanted to be like me but I was about sixteen and she was eleven. And I had no use for an eleven year-old imitating me. She borrowed my clothes (she grew earlier than I did, and we're the same height now), and clearly teenage clothes that I'd picked our were more interesting than little girl clothes that our fashion-less mother had. But I didn't respond very well to her; I'm sorry about that now. I wish I could go back--to show that little sister more grace. What difference it would have made I'll never know. But I can wish.
Anyway, she kept growing. Most of us know which place we are in a family. I know mine. I'm the oldest sister. The end. Not RE. Before she was through, she reminded me recently, she was the youngest child for seven years, a middle child for about four years and the oldest child for another ten. Pretty startling revelation to me. But as she grew, the age spread between us shortened. These days, there's no difference at all. One of the best gifts God ever did for us is to have given us children who are the same ages. This is a gift for us as well as for them. These three matched sets of cousins have been confidantes for each other, friends, siblings (without the fighting--except that one summer SR and E went to DC together!). And what they've done for us is...well, they were the deepening place for our friendship, but they are not the end all of it.
RE is one of my chief confidantes now too. In truth, I don't know how I'd survive without her in my life. That's the truth. The absolute truth. I don't know how this family would have survived without her having borne the burden of our mother in the last years of her life, but that's not even it for me. It's RE herself that matters to me. Her self-less service, her always available ear, her way of saying, "Oh C, I'm sorry," when she knows I'm hurting and "Thanks!" every time I call. It's her knowing exactly what I like and finding it for me--the exact shade of orange I am most drawn to and finding it in candles, the honey I love, the journals I use, a million other things. It's her deep desire to simply, always completely be in my life, however she can. She's a completely present person--stronger than she knows, steadier than she ever dreamed, with the capacity to love deeply and expansively. And I just want to take this day, on the anniversary of that snowy morning when she first breathed the air of this earth, to say, I love her that deeply and expansively back.