Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Marshall Girls

First posted 08/08

The only sibling I have is my sister. She’s two and a half years older than me and she's beautiful, strong and smart. We are similar because we were raised in the same home, but we were vastly different as teenagers and young adults. Her life’s journey has had more twists and turns than mine. I’ve had a simpler journey with small bends, gradual curves, and a few slow rough road ahead signs here and there.

She’s adventurous, earthy, and a dog person. She camps, hikes and white water rafts; she once rode on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle from Pennsylvania to Montana and back. She can go without make-up for weeks, and she can travel without her blow dryer. I put on make-up to walk to the end of the driveway for the mail.

She talks to her dogs like she’s talking to a child. “Stay out of the family room, I just ran the sweeper in there.” “No, you can’t ride in the back seat of the car.” And she had her Minister present when she buried one of her beloved dogs.

When she vacations she goes to places with seminars and lectures on things like Women’s Health Issues, Democrats in the White House, and Global Warming. She stays in B&Bs where everyone shops at Whole Foods markets and makes meals together. I go on vacation where the sand is white, the water is blue, and dinner is placed on the table in front of me. My seminars are Broadway shows.

She has her undergrad degree in business and her graduate degree in counseling. She's the Human Resource director for a big company. For a while she was a music major and she plays the Steinway Baby Grand in her living room beautifully. I can play both parts of the Chopsticks duet at the same time and Heart and Soul.

We resemble each other, although I'm the tall one now. I married my college sweetheart while I was still in college and we had two children in the first five years of our marriage. She was single for longer than those five years establishing her career and riding motorcycles.

While I was having babies and she was working and having fun we didn't talk much. Months would go by when we hardly spoke, not because we were fighting, but because there wasn't much to say. Our lives were different, being pulled in different directions and it was hard to find some common ground on which to start a conversation.

Then she married and had a child. She called me from the hospital the night my niece was born. I answered the phone and heard gulps and whimpers on the other end. Finally she whispered, “What am I supposed to do now?”

We began talking a lot again and where there was once a rent in the cloth of our sisterhood, we began weaving the fabric of our lives together again.

For many years after her divorce she was a single mom raising my beautiful niece, who is now a college grad, independent and employed, with a sense of humor that makes me laugh so hard, I snort.

My sister and I grew much closer as our children grew up. She met a wonderful man and married again and settled into a good routine.

Our parents were getting older and our father developed Alzheimer’s. He had begun to show signs of the disease before they retired and moved to Boca Raton, Florida. After five years in Boca it was clear to us that they both needed some help. So, they moved back to PA and it was my sister who moved all the furniture out of her dining room so that they could live with her on her first floor and not have to climb stairs. After a few months they moved into an apartment near us both and we visited them daily.

Mom’s health was declining as she cared for Dad and after about a year at home, Mom couldn't care for Dad by herself so we placed him in nice facility within walking distance of Mom's apartment. As good as it was, it wasn't home for him and he'd spend his nights calling out our Mom’s name. He didn't really know Mom or me and my sister by then but occasionally a small window would open in his memory for just a few minutes. The last thing he said to me was, "Do you have enough gas in your car?"

After only six months there, he died. Three weeks later Mom was admitted to Intensive Care for ailments she kept hidden from us while she cared for Dad. We followed her there and since the grief from losing our Dad was still practically palpable, we stayed in the waiting room of the ICU clinging to our surviving parent. We'd watch the clock for our 15 minute visit three times a day and we'd remind the nurses to tell her we were near. We didn't want her to feel alone or abandoned. We camped out in that waiting room for five days, never going home. Our spouses would bring us necessities and the caring staff brought us pillows and blankets each night which we spread on the waiting room furniture to sleep.

Fifty-six days after Dad died, Mom died.

So, there we were ... The Marshall girls ... orphans.

If there was ever a bonding moment for us, having both parents die within fifty-six days of each other, was it. That, and sleeping in a hospital waiting room for 5 days.

Suddenly we were a team ... the same ... joined together by birth and the untimely deaths of our parents. The similarities that seemed to have been hiding for many years rose to the surface smothering the differences and like glue, joined us to face the rest of our lives together.

My big sister and I walked through two funerals arm in arm lifting each other up and holding on to each other when we’d succumb to the enormity of it all.

While settling the estate we saw each other three or four days a week. We’d meet with the attorneys then go out for coffee together. It was during these coffee trips that we began to re-tell the stories of our childhood and we refreshed each other's memory of those years. The many snapshots I had in my brain of events of our youth were sharpened and drawn into focus as I listened to my sister re-tell them.

-The time we called country western star Gene Autry long distance in California. He was my sister’s hero (when she was ten) and because I was the little sister I made the call at her insistence.
-The time Mom made us write letters to Trisha and Julie Nixon because she learned we were about the same age as the President daughters.

-The time in Canada when she and I and a few friends were allowed to take the fishing boat out by ourselves for the first time and we accidentally let our Dad’s prized rod and reel slip into the lake.

-I reminded her of the day of her break-up with the love of her life...the same day I got the lead in the senior class play, two equally momentous occasions. I didn't tell her my news because she was suffering so in the aftermath of the lost love. That night at a football game she found me with my friends. She pulled me from the group and put her arms around me and asked, "Why didn't you tell me?"

These endless hours of talking went on and on and on as we worked through our grief together. That waiting room saga and those coffee chats were the best times of my life with my sister.

Now in our 50s, we make a point to have breakfast together once a month at least. And email is great. We're never out of touch. We’re still very different, she’s got two dogs at the moment and I’m planning my next beach vacation.

She’s been going to a gym regularly for years and I go sporadically. But, this morning she took me on a tour of her new gym and tomorrow I’ll sign up so I can spend some more time with her. I don't know what I'd do without her.

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