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Sister Act

STEPHANIE TAMES (<a href="http://www.stephanietames.com">www.stephanietames.com</a>) is writing a book of essays about her family.
STEPHANIE TAMES (www.stephanietames.com) is writing a book of essays about her family. (Courtesy Author)

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By Stephanie Tames
Sunday, February 1, 2009

My sister talks to her left arm as though it's separate from her body. It hasn't moved on its own in two years. She used to call her arm "baby," but now she just calls it "affected arm," like, "Affected arm needs to be adjusted first, then put the seat belt on." Or, "Affected arm is achy today." That's not exactly how she says it, but you get the idea. I live three states away, but I'm in town visiting her and my other sister, the oldest. As we're getting ready to go shopping, that sister mumbles something about taking affected arm and shoving it somewhere. I give her a mean look. "What?" she says, "I'm kidding."

The mall is busy and the parking lot full. It was probably a mistake to try this outing, but the affected-arm sister really wanted to go to the craft store. "Look for a crip parking place," my oldest sister says from the back seat. I glance at her in the rearview mirror. "Crip parking?" I say, incredulous. I can't believe she just said that. "What?" she says. "That's what we call it." Meaning her and affected-arm sister. I'm so amazed -- but not -- that I start laughing. I can't stop. Then we're all laughing.

My affected-arm sister chain-smokes, but she also gets cold easily, so we have to keep the car windows closed. I told her not to smoke in the car, but talking to her is like talking to a brick wall. She's always been like that. I find a parking space. When my door opens, smoke pours out of the car, and I'm coughing and laughing and trying to stop both. Laughing like that is tricky for me, as it can be for older women sometimes after years of having babies and sex. The muscles go slack. Things happen.

I struggle with the wheelchair while the back-seat sister helps the other with taking off the seat belt. I notice that we're somewhat of a spectacle. Some people look at us as they walk by; others just glance in our direction as if a full frontal stare might turn them, like Lot's wife, into a pillar of salt. I can see what they're thinking: There but for the grace of God go I.

After we get my sister tucked into the wheelchair, sweat pours down my face -- it's hormonal, something else that happens to older women. "Let's rock-and-roll," my sister with the affected arm says. She's ready to go shopping. Actually, she says "wok-and-woll," in a broad, fake accent like Chinese characters used to have on TV when we were growing up. For two years she has been speaking with this accent, which also sometimes morphs into something with a Middle Eastern cadence, then switches back. You never know when she'll break into it. That can be tricky, too.

Crossing now to the craft shop, I think we're a sight. We're all in our 50s: early, middle and late. I'm the youngest, now the same age as my affected-arm sister was when she had the stroke. There are two brothers in the family, too. They live only three hours away from here but come even less often than I do. The younger brother won't visit the affected-arm sister at all.

No one is talking, but I think we may all be thinking the same thing. I know I'm wondering how we got to this point, this situation. It wasn't what our parents led us to believe our lives would be like. We were supposed to be like them: securely middle-class, happily married, good jobs, nice homes, yearly vacations, family reunions. But that isn't how it worked out. There were rifts. My affected-arm sister fell into drugs, divorce, mental illness, disability, poverty. Our parents died younger than we expected, than they expected. Money ran out.

For a moment, I imagine I'm hovering above, looking down at us, the three sisters. The affected-arm sister is smiling in anticipation of shopping, which she loves. The oldest sister is angry because she has the burden of the affected-arm sister and her craziness and neediness. And then me, pushing the wheelchair and trying not to show how terrified I am at the prospect of caring for my disabled, crazy sister even for a day, much less forever. I think, There but for the grace of God -- and stop, because I remember that it is me, us, my family -- and that no grace has stopped my affected-arm sister from ending up so disabled with strokes and pacemakers and seizures, from living off welfare with none of us wanting to take care of her, none of us really liking her and because of it drifting further and further apart.

It occurs to me in a flash of nearly religious clarity that I want to be home again, with my parents not dead. Home, safe and secure. I don't want to be in my 50s on the downside of life, coping with hormones and toneless muscles and soon-to-be-brittle bones, and wondering which of us siblings will be the first to die, knowing the affected-arm sister will outlive us all.

As we open the door to the craft shop, affected-arm sister asks if we can go to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. She's still using her accent. My other sister and I look at each other and say, almost in unison, "That should be interesting."

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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