(This is a love story.)
“Stephie, lay down,” she says, patting her pillow. If the lights were on, I know those baby blue eyes would be searching my face for an affirmative answer.
As I get comfortable on the pillow, she turns to face me, pushing her forehead to mine. I can feel her hot breath in my face. Her tiny arm falls around my neck; her small hand conforms to the shape of the back of my neck. I can feel her fingers intertwining with my hair.
“Don’t get up now.”
“Ok. I won’t.” Lying there next to her, I can see from the hallway light that her eyes are open and she’s looking into my eyes. Something small and warm rises up inside of me. I gently touch her head with my hand. She’s beautiful — she’s my smallest sister.
“Don’t go, okay?”
We’re quiet for a few moments.
“I love you,” I said. “I loved you before I met you. And I’ll always be here for you. I’ll always look out for you. I mean it.”
She doesn’t say anything. Her fingers are twirling my hair.
“You have no idea what I’m saying, but I know I’m saying it.”
“I don’t wike needles. Want to see my boo-boo?”
She pulls up her pajamas to reveal a pink Barbie Band-Aid on her left shin.
“I don’t like needles either. How’d you do that?”
“I falled down.”
Her fingers continue to curl into my hair and we are quiet for a few more moments. And all I can do is smile.
(This is a story about finally understanding why we cannot help who we love.)
I have never loved anyone before I met them. I’ve never given of myself before I trusted in a person’s character, heart, spirit. It’s a crazy notion, to love before knowledge, before sight, before anything at all. But with my sisters, I did not have a choice, as I have loved them always.
Kristen is my blood sister who, at almost 21, is becoming a woman faster than I am willing to admit; Savannah is my godsister who, at three years of age, is the most fascinating child I’ve encountered. And believe me: it is a cruel twist of fate that beautiful little girls grow up. That they cannot remain as they are when their innocence is so genuine and tangible is a tragedy that I cannot escape.
These days, when I look at their faces, a pit forms in my stomach and I find myself trying to capture fleeting moments and vanishing glances. Soon, I’ll be buying Kristen a legal beer in a bar; soon, Savannah will be ditching the training wheels on her Barbie bike.
I cannot believe what time is doing to me.
Kristen is four years younger than me, and my memory of her birth now carries a certain degree of haze. Time seems to do that to the ones we want to remember the most.
I remember looking at my mother’s exposed belly. She was sitting in a yellow chair in a brown and white room. I remember the doctor putting something like headphones over my ears, and within seconds, I heard a distant thudding. Like someone quietly patting a drum. My face must have revealed my confusion. I remember my mother smiling, and when the headphones were removed, she told me that I had just listened to my baby sister’s heartbeat.
I wish I knew what I thought of that.
Some time later, my parents brought her home and she was not what I had expected. She was strange to me: her navel was covered by a purple cotton ball that I promptly tried to remove. (Years later, I understood why my parents freaked out as they saw me reaching for the remains of her umbilical cord.) This Kristen was small and very noisy. I was under the impression that getting a little sister meant getting someone to play with. My face, again, must have revealed my utter confusion.
My parents put her in my arms and told me that I was her big sister, that I was supposed to help protect her and keep her safe, that she was as much mine as theirs, and that she most certainly would grow up and play with me. This seemed to put things in perspective for me, as much as that is possible for a 4-year-old.
But I became Kristen’s sworn protector. I beat up the neighborhood boys on several occasions for making her cry. When she was too shy to ask for ketchup in a restaurant, I spoke up. She was my little sister. Still is.
The haze has not yet settled on the birth of Savannah. I remember holding her in my arms just hours after her birth. Kristen was there. I looked from Savannah to Kristen and back again and I knew immediately that we were going to be her big sisters. In stolen moments in the hospital, Kristen and I rattled off a list of great things she had to look forward to: fireworks, cheeseburgers, going fishing and crabbing, swimming pools, the beach, and eventually margaritas and daiquiris. We laughed to ourselves because she was so tiny yet had the longest legs we’d ever seen on a baby. Instantly, Kristen and I adored her.
And in that moment, I think I began to understand for the first time what it is to love without restriction. We do not choose those we love. We cannot chose a thing like that, nor are we meant to. But when you look at a child who in some way belongs to you, you stop pretending that nothing matters. You have no choice but to accept responsibility for the tiny human being in your arms.
And during these moments, we give ourselves over and we are powerless to stop it. Like a flood rushing in at a thousand miles an hour, you fall prey to the ultimate vulnerability: you are wholly committed and in love and the future has never looked more uncertain or terrifying.
And as I look back into the shadowy memories of my childhood, I know why there is an unshakable sadness in the pit of my stomach that sometimes rises up within me whenever Savannah comes around. I felt it during those long-lost years when Kristen was small and fragile. It comes from fear. There are dark figures, strange places, and ugly unspeakables that young girls sometimes encounter along the way to becoming young women. There are no guaranteed safeguards — only luck or personal interference from God himself can save them from it.
But this is what I cannot bear: the thought of either of them knowing the weight of a man’s stare or the feel of a sweaty palm on their skin or the way all of it makes vomit rise in the back of your throat. I cannot bear that, but I know there are no promises, no guarantees.
I know there is no way to protect a little girl, no way to keep her safe from all that exists out in the world. But you can love her. You can give her everything else that she is going to need to be strong enough to face what is out there. You can teach her that she holds the keys to her future, that she can be anything she dreams, and that no matter what, she will always have a safe place to fall when monsters threaten to appear.
That’s exactly what my mother did for my sister and me. I know my godmother will do the same for Savannah. And I can do my best when I am with them.
But this is just a big sister talking. I love them, but I cannot protect them. And this is risk that you are forced to take when you don’t have a choice anymore.
I don’t believe that it is possible for me to love anything more than I do my sister, and when I look at Savannah, I know exactly why I feel that way. They amaze me. Savannah reminds me of Kristen when she was young. Precocious children who toss their heads back and boldly tell you “No” with a devil-may-care grin. I adored Kristen, and I do Savannah. It’s far beyond words and I can’t help it.
I was holding Savannah as we made our way across the street from my mother’s house back to my godparents’ house. The moon was out and it was so bright above us. The stars were scattered and I swear the sky was almost purple.
“Savannah, do you see the moon up there?”
She turned her face upward.
“I like it.”
“Me too. It’s pretty, huh?”
She turned her face back to mine. Her fingers were running through my hair. “Yeah, but Stephie, your hair’s cold.”
She wrinkled her nose at me and smiled, and I swear I never felt the cold.