She follows me by six years but, in ways, it feels like 12 — the split between my oldest child and hers. At times, our distance was expansive — I left for college as a seventeen year old sophomore and she stayed behind, 11, in many ways. During my single formative educational year in Minnesota, Mary became passionate about words on pages, blogs, coffee cups, and souls. This was the season of the quotable Starbucks cups, of poetry magnets on refrigerators, just north of ‘zines and just south of Facebook. We were writing on the newly formed blog platforms like Angelfire and baring our souls to strangers through AIM chatrooms — ripe scenarios for grooming and conditioning, for unfair expectations of intimacy or shock value — and whatever I was writing Mary was reading and mimicking and hoping to do, too.
I wasn’t much interested in my little sister, then. It wasn’t so much the early pangs of replacement I’d experienced when she burst into the world, wide shouldered and angry, tearing my mother’s midsection for the first time, and the last time — when every other delivery would be and had been natural. Mary was supernatural — busy and big and wide eyed with big cheeks and energy that she remembers as “second string” or “side kick” and I remember as “all encompassing” and powerful. It’s amazing how young we are when our self perception shifts and wiggles, warps and cowers, lifts and locks and loads. I wrote the occasional letter to her, long-form, hand written, scrawled across notepaper pulled from a philosophy class or piece of right-wing propaganda my “christian liberal arts college” passed like a proverb into our open hands. Mary followed my blog, immediately, though she wasn’t prone to comment in the open comment section — rather to tell me, much later, that she had and what it’d meant — to send me snippets of her poetry as she matured.
We came from the same trauma background and yet, we experienced everything differently. She awoke one morning, three years old, to the absence of her perceived “perfectly normal big brother” who had always occupied her home and I, the same morning felt finally safe from the adopted older sibling who’d invaded when I was two and taken my safety and security, my stability and sense of family, thrown it all away. For years Mary worried she’d be sent away, too, if she was “bad” and for years I wanted her to see me and thank me for protecting her by taking the abuse. She didn’t know — couldn’t know — shouldn’t know, and so my desire was long unrequited. I held a certain contempt for how easy her road was — the way her path seemed stretched long and easy with older, more easy-going parents, an in-home safety, and older sisters to pave the way. She was, in a sense, also the second born. I the second daughter of my parent’s youth and Mary the second daughter of their beginagaining — a three part series of children that landed in my mother’s womb and father’s lap within a 30 month period. We never really spoke of the “why” our older trio was renovated or replaced, but I always felt a little disenfranchised by moving from “youngest” to “older sister of three” and a little displaced in my own identity. I didn’t know the ways she’d need me and I didn’t think I’d ever need her.
When at 18 I found myself pregnant, married, moving back to my hometown at 19 with a husband and baby in tow, it was Mary who delightedly joined me in raising Christian. Mary who spent afternoons with my infant and then toddler while I worked, cleaned, wrote. Without the saving grace of my sister’s belief in my stories, my voice, my impact, I would have ceased to write completely but she compelled me to write it, to scream it, out. I read her poetry, first the words of youthful naivete and then the soul-wrenching, sadness dripping words of her first loss by suicide, her first breakup, the first tinges of addiction, boy and girl lover drama, her experience of sexual violence — all under the cover of her deep ability to wrestle openly with a passionate faith in the Jesus she’d loved since her childhood and the systems of control and abuse and abandonment she would eventually reject, leave fully, and then reconstruct. We self published a book of our joint poetry, “a different cadence” that explores, in little girl language, sex and religion, devotion and desecration and the ways we were and would be.
The thing about having a younger sister is that it is so very like having a daughter in the ways you seek to protect, defend, challenge, and believe in another human who carries pieces and parts of you to learn from you, do better than you, become. Where a younger sister is not at all like a child is that they do not rely on you, in the same capacity, with the same intensity, for a solid block of years. For as much as Mary was impactful in my life during my early motherhood, she was absent for the next chapter and, in that absence, I neglected to care as deeply as I shouldacouldawoulda had I the chance to go back and redo.
For a period of one formative education year, at my encouragement, Mary took to Indiana the way I had fled to Minnesota. And, though I’d beggedpleadedaskedencouraged her to do as I said, not as I did, she found herself 18 and engaged, embroiled in a full on rebellion against the childhood she’d wished to rewrite, the patriarchal understanding the kept her from fully being seen, or seeing, herself. In this missing time, she discovered beat poetry and better music, higher powers and more addictions. And then she fled, as I had, back to a safety net that stripped her bare but never saw her. She landed, a few months home, in the arms of a man who would have and hold her when she didn’t want to be had or held and though she married him, she would cycle into circles of hurt and horror — a grasping at a way to be free while desperately unsure of how to do so. I didn’t know Mary then — I may have been the lone family member that was so messed up in my own trauma and negative cycles to reach out to her. As far as I knew she was fine. And, lost and alone, exploring and hurting, she was, eventually, fine.
Mary has done the deepest and hardest work of anyone I know. She’s relentlessly and even aggressively honest and hopeful in others to do the same. She cares, more than others, about others. She listens actively, defends the innocent and the guilty with gusto, and has stepped into motherhood even when it felt unnatural, at first, even painful and hard. At some point in the past four years, as Mary has rebuilt a life she didn’t know she wanted, her infectious energy and joy re-entered my own life. As she fought out of addiction and into acceptance, I was equally honored to see her and horrified to see myself in her. As she’s practiced courageous vulnerability, I’ve stepped into the spotlight and opened up, too. Because of her compulsion to be 100% her, all of the time, devil may care and mom may blush, I am able to be 68% me. I have no example but hers to thank.
Mary and I spend very little time together. We don’t talk often but when we do, driving 4000+ miles to Houston (by way of Detroit and Nashville — we seldom take the straight or easy road) or now, as I sit in Sioux Falls awaiting entry to her recovery room in a Hospital complex (that feels familiar because every hospital complex feels identical) — our conversations are deep and introspective, wild in their resolve and imagination, haunting in their wordiness, the recollections that connect or mystify us. We have experienced parralel lines, running in the same direction. Our lives are so incredibly similar that at times I think she was always meant to come behind me and do better what I had hoped and set out to do.
And she does.
I talk about giving life but I stop at donating blood or imagining my children will do better. I talk about pursuing happiness but I chase resentment and contempt, always able to blame another for the ways I feel unfulfilled. I imagine adventure and lament the lack of time I have to write and create and she is filling napkins, setting an alarm early, putting miles on her bike and her car and the soles of her feet — she’s willing to put sole or soul into everything she does and when a friend needed a kidney, of course, of course, of course of course — it was Mary who met the need.
When Mary was born I thought she’d long follow me but, maybe by nature of elevation or obstacle, her path, running alongside mine, covered distance with a velocity and ferocity that I cannot maintain. It is me, now, in pursuit of the energy she brings to her authentic, messy, beloved existence — the bones and meat and heartbeat of all she is. I follow her willingly, in awe — like a kite catching a wave and waving in splendor.
She willingly gifts her kidney, silly bean, grinning at the doctors and nurses, endearing everyone who comes in contact. She birthed her daughters on her living room floor so everything in the hospital is ridiculous and much and redundant and she is gracious in her laughter and her time. She said it like this, last night, and I cannot say it better:
“I’ve got these two kidneys and my whole body is, for the last time, spending the night with me in the same bed in the same room in the same city in the same state…
…and tomorrow it will all be different. And someone will get to wake up on Thursday for the first time with a feeling of new life in their guts and a bright smile will light their face. 💚
And me? Even though I’ll feel like sh*t on Thursday and I’ll be super second-guessing my decision I’ll remember that hey, after all, this is bigger than me and hey, after all, here’s a new way that I learned about life and the universe and the beautiful ways that we can all gift one another our time and our energy and our love. Because it’s bigger than me (the story has always been bigger than me) and I get the honor of pointing to that bigger thing (bigger Person) and say “hey, that’s Who love is.”
And then (together) we welcome a baby in a manger with all the pain and joy and love and life that the universe has always been.”
And damn, she’s leading all the ways we can be alive and she’s flying, kite streaming across open sky and she’s an example for her daughters but, more, even, maybe, because they will forget to listen and it’ll be late in their lives when they see her fully, she’s an example for me, today. I couldn’t be more proud to watch her crisscross the sky.