You have been my first companion in a lifetime of laughter, quarrels, and confidences. Without you, the oldest of three girls, I would never know what it means to be a little sister, to race down to the end of cul-de-sacs on bikes, to fight kicking and screaming while our mother wept on the stairs.
I would never know what it was like to be defended with more vehemence than we ever directed at each other.
When you were two and I was a newborn, you introduced me to a visitor, walking him up the stairs to my room. “This is John Chester,” you told him, pointing to my crib. My parents thought it was hilarious, you mixing up my difficult name, Christiana. But I think you were disappointed that I wasn’t a boy so you gave me a name, pretending I was one anyway.
I know I’ve disappointed you since then. But you’ve still continued to name me.
I remember the shock on my classmate’s face in junior high, whose crime was talking behind my back; her punishment was an earful from you. I felt just a little sorry for her but also incredulous that you would fight for me. At that moment, you named, to everyone else listening that I was your sister.
I didn’t know much of life without that security. It was a heart lesson about you: that you would constantly surprise me, that you were fiercely loyal to me, even when I didn’t deserve it.
Years later we lived only a few miles apart. I, the single and newly graduated writer living alone in a creepy apartment complex, scared from staying up too late reading the latest Harry Potter. You, the young mother of four small children, up at all hours of the night with kids. And still you rushed to my aid when I called you, terrified, alone, sick in the middle of the night.
You spent the night on my couch.
Now, we are thousands of miles apart and, now I am the mother to my own small children, while your oldest is graduating high school.
When our little sister telephones from Texas, I can hear something in her voice. Her first words display the intricate weaving of a lifetime of shared familial meaning. At first, I think she is going to tell me that our grandmother has died, or that there’s something urgent with our father who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago.
But this time, it’s you.
“She’s in the ER,” our little sister says about you. “But it’s probably just a panic attack.”
Panic is such a mild word for the overpowering sense of falling into darkness and fear that comes with such an episode, as if it could be washed away with a cup of tea and a warm bubble bath.
We are all, three sisters, intimate with such darkness. And you are saddled with the burden of being the oldest daughter in this family who is struggling through the complexities of cancer, dementia, and a shrinking nest.
But this is something worse. At midnight, another call comes from our mother. You haven’t had a panic attack. You’ve had a stroke.
A stroke. At forty years old.
Suddenly the litany of terrible things we only imagined could happen, finally has; the things we have all feared in those darkest moments of panic—pain, sickness, and death—are all possible.
And I am far away, only able to imagine how you feel, how you look in that hospital bed. You can’t use your hand, and even though your speech is slowly returning, the whole right side of your body is numb. I get the updates via text; your friends come to cheer you up. Your youth pastor shares your progress with your listening prayerful world.
Even though I’m grateful so many people are surrounding you, I want it to be me sitting beside you, fighting for you the same way you did for me, staying up late by your bedside.
Maybe you are too gracious and too busy healing to be disappointed with me. But I can’t help feeling like I’ve failed you as I sit thousands of miles away, my prayers, tears, and words the only things I have to offer.
You’ve always taken the fall for your little sisters, taking the brunt of some of the early pain of learning and struggle. As my own oldest daughter lives out an internal urge that I will never understand, this urge to manage her siblings and even, at times, her parents, I see how much pressure you have always lived under.
You truly are the “mother of us all.” From you, I learned about sex, how to fight in marriage, how to mother strong children, how to love with a vehement love.
I can only imagine, sister, your fear that this stroke will unmake you; that your hands and body are moving without your consent. I have nothing to offer you, save to remind you that nothing can really unmake you, except the fear itself. Nothing can un-create what God has knit together in that valiant heart of yours.
Let me be a witness; remember, I have seen you fight. I have felt your fierceness when we were on the floor kicking each other as children. I have seen you fight for me, for our sisterly bond. I feel your love even more now that I’m a mother, knowing that you sacrificed your sleep for your scared, lonely sister.
I have seen your strength mature you into a beautiful lioness.
I know, too, that you are good at renaming. Now, use that strength and rename this cursed stroke:
My sister, the one who took the fall
Lift up your head…
He comes to make his blessings flow
As far and wide as the curse is found
He comes to make His blessings flow
Image above is by Laura Betancourt, licensed by Creative Commons.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Christiana N. Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.