All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. – Havelock Ellis
I like to remember her as a little girl shakily racing down Valmar Place, wearing my roller skates, (three sizes too big for her tiny feet), screaming my name in excitement. She didn’t know how to stop, but she knew I’d catch her – sweep her up like the little doll she was to me – and plant a kiss on her sweet little moon-shaped face.
Regaining her four year-old dignity, she’d wobble on the sidewalk holding onto my arm with both hands. For every step I took forward, she would slide back a foot, and I’d pull her ahead, proud of the strength in my eight year-old arms; enormously proud to be a big sister.
“Did you bring my private milk?” she’d ask. Yes, I’d say, of course. The small red carton of Meadow Gold from my school lunch (private because it served only one), was always Deborah’s. I detested milk almost as much as I detested school, which was always slow torment for me – a place where the clock was a medieval torture wheel, and all the adults tended to sound like the whawhawaha teacher on Charlie Brown. I preferred my punishments to be swift, so I could get back to the really important things, like wondering if there were girls on Mars, or if finding an Indian boy on my Tootsie Pop wrapper would really get me a free one from the store.
No matter how much my mind wandered though, my thoughts were never too far from Deborah. I felt responsible for my little twig of a sister, and as protective as any mother, except our own. When her dark eyes filled with tears, my heart broke in equal measure. When her arms reached for me, I reflexively picked her up. When she had a bad dream and stood by the side of my bed, I pulled back the covers so she could crawl in next to me.
I potty-trained her, taught her to read and write, taught her how to dance to Proud Mary like an Ikette – and then I left home at 16 on a sudden desperate whim, without saying goodbye. She never did forgive me. When I saw her two years later she was an angry, scowling fourteen year old.
“I slept with your picture under my pillow,” she seethed. “I had to wonder every day if you were dead.” Her words filled me with shame. I wanted to scoop her up like I used to, kiss that angry moon-shaped face, and tell her how sorry I was over and over again. “Leave me alone,” she said.
And eventually I did. I had to. Years did not mend the divide, no apology would suffice, and the little girl I loved deeply and then selfishly abandoned as a teenager turned into someone I did not recognize. A woman steeped in rage, and full of violence. Blackouts, excuses, justifications, no help sought, wanted, or thought to be needed. She had become a woman not unlike our mother. In my eighth month of pregnancy, with no argument preceding it, just a sullen mood, Deborah turned violent. I was stunned, but luckily not physically hurt.
I let go of my baby sister after that, and the pain was sharp and deep. I felt an enormous amount of guilt and shame for abandoning her, and blamed myself for causing the anger that seemed to spark all of her other furies.
Yet when I held my newborn daughter in my arms for the first time, and felt that immense rush of love swell my heart, I knew – and I promised her – that I would never let the hand of violence take any part of her childhood. I knew – and promised – that I would protect her from anyone who might cause her harm.
I kept that promise, and the sharp pain of disconnecting from Deborah eventually turned into a dull ache, and finally into a place where only the fondest thoughts are kept as sentimental keepsakes. I can remember her, us, and realize now we were both little girls. . .with separate minds and free will, who traveled different roads as adults.
I was, at one time, my sister’s keeper. I am now the keeper of sisterhood memories, and I choose to remember my sister as a sweet moon-faced girl with her head thrown back in laughter, and her dark eyes full of love and hope. I choose to remember a time when my arms were strong enough to help pull her along the path.
The last time I saw Deborah, we were both in our 30′s. She was still angry.
Have you ever had to let someone you loved go in order to keep your own life healthy? A toxic family member, a loved one, a friend? If so, why? Do you have any regrets, or are you still comfortable with your decision?