When my sister was very young, she appointed herself my protector. It didn’t matter that she was two years younger: I was a shy, ashmatic child, gangling of limb and totally lacking in physical grace, whereas she was athletic and boisterous and tending toward ferociousness, and those qualities more than made up for our age difference in confrontations with bullies. If somebody teased me, she’d be right there, waving chubby fists and hollering profanities (where she learned them – raised, as she was, in the bosom of a very Catholic family – my parents were never able to figure out) and daring, daring, whoever it was that had the temerity to confront her sister to take on her as well. And there we’d stand, together: me, tall and awkward, blushing and stammering and willing myself to disappear, and her, chubby and gap-toothed, stomping and yelling and demanding our antagonists to BRING IT, and although it was sort of embarrassing to me – having my little sister stick up for me – I was also always grateful, and proud.
It was her and me against the world, and we were happy that way. We moved, a lot – every two years or so – and so we were, by necessity, each other’s best friend. Our circle was us, and our parents, and our first loyalty was always to that circle, and if my loyalty was quiet and intense, recorded in diaries and squeezed tightly, privately, to my heart, hers was loud and insistent, proclaimed in ferocious outbursts to anyone who would listen. We were the Connors girls, Cathy and Chrissy, Chrissy and Cathy, and we came as a package. An odd package, to be sure – one so thin and quiet, the other so robust and loud – but one that was nonetheless bound tightly and, I think now, in hindsight, beautifully.
The dynamic between us shifted as we grew older, and family life became more complicated – a long story, that, and one that can be put aside for another time – and there were more and more times that I became the protector and stood up against whatever forces of the universe were bullying my girl and waved my fists and shouted BRING IT. And becoming her protector became part of my growing up, and had everything to do with me leaving the shy, awkward girl that I was behind and moving forward to become the strong, confident woman that I am. And yet no matter how much strength and confidence I believe that I possess, I worry, now, that it’s not enough, and that fear touches a part of me that I had almost forgotten, the part of me that was bullied in grade school and that looked to my younger, more spirited sister for strength and inspiration. For protection.
I’m doing everything that I can to protect her now, but the forces bearing down on her are too strong – her son, dying; her heart, breaking; her life, collapsing around her – and I can’t stop them, and I’m afraid, and I feel like a kid again, a kid who couldn’t fight her battles alone, a kid who is suddenly missing her chief ally, a kid who suddenly needs to get brave and protect her chief ally, her best friend, because she needs her help, my help, like, now. And although I know that I’m not really alone – I have our family, and I have all of you, friends and supporters in this amazing space right here – it still feels that way, in the darker moments, like when I had to fly away from her while she was mid-crisis, like now, when I can’t reach her on the phone, like this whole span of time stretching before us, the weeks during which she’ll be on her own, the weeks during which I wish that I could just whisk her away, take her away from everything that is hurting her and give her a break, give her respite, give her peace, if only for a day or two or four.
Because I can’t stop what’s happening, and even when I throw myself in front of it and try to deflect some the hail of badness, it’s not quite enough, it’s never quite enough, and if only I could just pull her away, grab her by her hand and run, run fast and hard, to somewhere that we can hide, together, like we used to – in the trees or under blankets or in whatever fort or camp we could construct in our imaginations – and catch our breath and tell each other that we’re brave enough to go back out there, we are.
And then go back out there. And be brave again, because we must be.
I don’t have that fort, that treehouse, that wall of blankets, not anymore, and I don’t know where to find it. And I feel exposed. And I feel like I’m letting her down. I’m doing my best, but it feels insufficient, and although I say that I have to let go of the idea of saving, of needing to save, I can’t quite let go entirely, because this is my sister, this is my best friend, this is the girl who always did her very best to save me, and don’t I have to try?
I have to try. Whatever that means, whatever that looks like, however un-save-y that turns out to be – even if that turns out to look nothing like saving at all, and everything like just waving fists and then running and hiding and escaping, even if only for a little while – I have to try.