Before my sister left my house for the last time, closing out our summer together, she packed some of the hand-me-downs I had set aside for her son Charlie.
Normally, I would send these items to her through my mother or another relative, using their suitcases like an underground mail service. This time, my sister took with her whatever would fit in the back of her station wagon. More than anything else, she wanted the pair of red Converse sneakers that my 3-year old son had been wearing for over a year.
“Those are perfect. No other size or color in that shoe will ever be cuter,” my sister had declared upon seeing the shoes for the first time.
“I’m gonna grow up to be a man!” my 3-year-old announced after breakfast one morning in July.
“Not in those shoes, you’re not,” we said. The sneakers had begun to pinch his toes, but he had become so attached to them—even napping in them occasionally—that eventually, we secreted them out of my house under the blue moon.
When Charlie wears my children’s old clothes, he bears fragments of their younger selves—their smaller, fleshy bodies that are now available to me only when recalled in memory. My children once pounced on my bed in those striped pajamas, those heel-worn socks—if I pass them on to someone I love, it’s easier to let them go.
And so, I wondered, was it also possible to prolong the life of something intangible? Could the time in which my sister and I had built a temporary life together somehow be carried on, into the beyond?
I wasn’t ready for my sister to pack up and move on.
Truthfully, despite grieving the end of each year of my children’s lives, I have always held each subsequent phase of parenthood, whichever one I have yet to enter, as my golden fleece, that fleeting snitch evading capture. The more independent my children become, the more freedom I gain. But this summer with my sister and Charlie, I was more content to settle in to the present. Perhaps all that desire for more time to myself was misplaced. Life, it seemed, was more tolerable when shared.
Inside our village, episodes that might normally garner frustration and judgment were rendered benign. Among her drama students, my sister and her enchanting, willowy arms once earned her the near-perfect classroom moniker: The White Slinky. Still, she’s six feet tall and like our Dad, her gait is more like a lumbering sauropod than a filmy sea creature. She has always tromped around on her heels and clattered through the room. All summer, I awoke early to her shutting the microwave oven or banging the cabinet doors after retrieving a coffee cup. This became part of our life, tucking itself into the notion of a new day.
My sister also made adjustments. One morning, I went to let my aging dog out the back door only to find that he had already taken care of business on my sister’s flip flop.
After sorting that out, I walked into the breakfast room. “Sorry,” I said as my sister cracked a knowing smile.
“It’s okay,” she said lightly, “I knew you’d take care of it.”
In the spirit of our intentional, deliberate summer, I had envisioned a closing ceremony of sorts, a pagan end wherein we would honor, among other things, my sister’s affection for list making. Here are the top five things I love about you. Here are the things I will miss most. Here are the reasons why we absolutely must do this again next year. But it never happened. The closer we got to her leaving day, the deeper the fissure split into my heart, and into that, all my intentions of closure vanished.
Anyway, I had already named aloud all the reasons why my sister must move closer to my town, or to any other town nearby. My justifications and assertions were fantasy, I knew, and by August they began acting as such—once tightly-organized thoughts springing from my mouth like loose letters, an alphabet of hope. Leave your happy life and come to me, I chanted, my voice losing its austerity, morphing, at last, into a foolish catcall.
On our final day together, I busied myself watering plants and fixing torn swim goggles while my sister packed and readied for the long drive south. We were at our parents’ house again that weekend, surrounded by the last of our family members who trickled out slowly, as they do.
It’s true, I was afraid that if I confessed to grieving her departure beginning in the weedy dawn light before the coffee was made, she would pat me on the head and usher me along to the next part of morning. For mothers, trifling grievances begin early in the day, piling up unattended on our plates like cruciferous vegetables. What more of that did she need from me?
And so I helped her carry her bags to the boat, changed Charlie’s diaper and put on his traveling clothes, pulled tight the Velcro on his shoes (for the red shoes could not yet be worn in plain sight), and meandered down to the dock. She kissed my three children and promised to set up a video chat soon. When we pulled away, our mother and Charlie at the helm, I succumbed to the inevitable. I plopped down on the seat next to my sister, all aching and heavy, and wrapped my arms around her, burying my face in her neck. We began to sob, the wind twisting our hair into a cyclone Gemini, bodies heaving, lips wordless.
There was no other goodbye, no great, wide-open space to fill, for what we might say was already well known. From one village to the next, the narrative holds true: of everything ordinary we can expect to hold onto, those non-deciduous things carried from summer to fall, the most blazing is the certainty that the people we love also love us in return.
Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia and tweets @SimShanley. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children. And, temporarily, lived with her sister and nephew.
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