Sidekicks: My Galloping Sister and I

Allanya, our sister Marinell (now deceased), and me, Cynthia- 2010

One more time: back in the hospital. It’s been a year spending time in one or another of them. First my oldest sister’s passing. Then I landed in two different hospitals. Next, my dear friend. Now Allanya, my last and only sister.

I sip my coffee and give her a smile. It isn’t every day I get to assist my older sister, the empress of all fundamental operations, the executive of primary and unexpected life events, the person with whom I would trust my very life when you get right down to it. I look at her length beneath the shapeless gown and try to imagine her without that defining crooked gait that barely slowed her despite years of discomfort. She is about to be given a new hip. After, I will accompany her home so I can give her a week of assistance.

When she asked me to sign her will the night before surgery it was as if my very blood stopped in my veins. I thought of our older sister, whom we just lost in April. I cannot lose this one, too, not now. I pray for an unerring, clean surgery, for a spectacular recovery.

Allanya is five years older than I am and naturally that shaped our relationship from the start. What can you do when you are doomed to not only be the baby of the family but also the third daughter and default underling to the second sister? The only logical response is to memorize the lay of the land, observe the family power structure and then take your chances navigating the maze of home life that’s revealed step by step. Soon it was apparent that I would be the one to fetch and retrieve, support and defend as required. Oh, yes, also commit petty thievery (another cinnamon roll, for example, or the National Geographic someone else was reading; a quarter or a good pen left on the table). I tried to locate clues to her intentions in order to be prepared for all circumstances. Other things might get tricky, like being left with the corner of our shared bedspread or being forgotten at the community swimming pool. (I’m near-sighted so it was a cautious, blurry trek about the huge pool.) And I, of course, was a keeper of secrets, as we all know littlest kids see and hear the most.

Yes, better to be a strong ally, to be the right hand girl. Or get creamed. A few sisterly punches or verbal blackmails straightened right out.

Now she is much older…no surprise that I am, too. But things have a way of re-balancing. After all, life brings with it not only rewards–she became a real executive director and I became a counselor and writer (another sort of keeper of secrets/pilferer of experiences)–but we also have suffered apart and together. We moved and tried out lives in different places, only to reunite over twenty years ago in the Pacific Northwest. We had lived together in the Seattle area after I exited high school (while she was a high school teacher). I knew I would be back one day as mountains, forests and sea beguiled me. I just didn’t expect it to take me so long.

When I did consider following Allanya out to Oregon, I was in exodus from what felt like the hardest half of my life–I hoped it would soon be put behind me. She offered me one of her rental houses and my relocation became immediate. And this sister–who had filled the place with all necessities and left fresh flowers on the dining room table–made the house a sheltering place. She was only a few minutes away. I recall standing in that lovely house feeling overwhelmed as warm honey-hued light burnished the space. Wondering how I deserved a sister so loving and generous. Such faith in me helped enable a new beginning.

Year after year our experiences elicited often happy, sometimes tart and tender moments; we’ve stepped forward and back in that dance that siblings choreograph. And that day in the surgery waiting room I felt I was right where I wanted to be, close at hand. Her legs, as needed. Her cheerleader, a purveyor of all things good and hopeful. For Allanya, it meant relinquishing control, not an easy thing, to say the least. For me, it meant being ready to give what was asked. It meant being love in action, just as she has been so often for me.

She waited until the pain of an awkward gait forced her to do something about it. Far too busy for years, she kept saying, to take the time to get repaired and mended properly. Now that she has, I find myself in a familiar position, back to fetching and retrieving, and aiding and abetting–but being a most willing sidekick.

After two and a half days in hospital, she is recovering from the hip replacement operation. And this time I also get to call a few of the shots. Or, so I wish.

“Slow down with that walker, you’re going to run over the dogs!” I call after her as she disappears around a corner.

Allanya listens with a nod and a smile–she is nothing if not diplomatic yet also direct–and then does as she pleases much of the time. It is not in her nature to watch life parade by. She wants to be leading any parade and then does a heck of a job of it; it’s what she knows and what her talents afford. Even if sometimes she can be blustery. Controlling. Well, we all can err on the farther side of our best nature and stubborness is in our DNA.

And so, she comes and goes, back and forth past her devoted but disabled partner who also tends to her. Allanya fusses over their dogs, gives me orders and takes breaks to read, doze or watch television but she is often in the doorway when I turn around. I get food ready and store it and shine up the kitchen, get the mail, hang out, pet, let out and bring back the doggies, do laundry, clean more, help her get ready for bed, help her with her shower, empty the portable commode, put on and take off her socks, run errands and so on. All the things we each need to do every day, life basics we tend to accomplish without much concern as long as we are able to do them. She accepts the help with good humor and a dash of her ingrained managing. I don’t stray far enough for her to get into much trouble those first five days. But I can’t make her stay on the couch, either.

She is, in fact, surprising us, feeling much better each day. I find she is already straining at the bit, acting as if healed entirely–as if she can and will commandeer her entire body’s complex operations. I suggest she have patience and slow down. No, she has to enter the kitchen and help with the meals or find her books or get her own water. She trundles from room to room, the walker sliding and thunking along the wooden floors. I try to be everywhere at once but feel I am losing ground.

“I’m good, I was their star patient, I’m quite strong,” she reminds me.

“I know, but you’re still a human.” I feel like wagging a finger in her face but control myself.

She grins at me, a broad-shouldered, white-haired imp, a woman who has overseen people and events. She is not so easily directed or distracted from her goal. Her gaze is clear as I stare back. Oh, right, I am still a bit of the little sister here, white stands in my hair or not. But I am on my feet so can and will do more. Because I do so want her to get healthy again, and safely.

Then on day four, the day before I am to leave, her body finally rebels and crashes. Energy fizzles and she is dizzy, faint, enervated. Blood pressure too low. Sweaty. Back to bed–and finally she embraces real rest.

I search her eyes. See the veil of weariness cloud them. A little fear. It has taken years to come to this point. Years of laboring, of tending to others, of living with the sort of energy that gives the word “gusto” its essence: a small force of nature. And years of chronic, even debilitating pain ignored as she has served others, her relentless spirit pushed forward by the momentum of sheer will. I get it; we’re family so share some traits. And being slowed, then stopped is uncommon.

I think of how she always wanted to be a cowgirl, how she dressed up in fringed vest and boots and a cowgirl hat. Feet set hard on the ground, legs apart, hands on hips. Dimples deepening as she smiled. How she loved horses, once lived on a ranch in California. She’d always seemed able to do whatever she wanted, to refashion a whole life, to conjur money from a mere good idea, to handle external injuries or internal losses with faith and confidence. Allanya is a mistress of reinvention; it has saved her again and again.

I pray as her eyelids lower, almost expect her to rise from the bed as if nothing has happened. But no, her body is still calling the shots so she needs to surrender, to be truly watched over. And we do. By the end of the afternoon, she is better and up again awhile–then soon to bed after dinner. I sense she will be fine but more prayer never hurt anyone. I dream of families converging, children leaving, sisters reappearing. I feel our other sister, Marinell, nearby and I know she is shaking her head as she laughs, smiling a radiant smile.

The next day, day six, I come upstairs from my basement bedroom and hear “Good morning!” ring out, so I know she is close to being back in business. I am feeling a bit tired, even cranky so take a long walk, grocery shop, pay bills. I need to write but my computer is being fixed. But we watch television shows (some I have never heard of before) until bedtime.

By the seventh day, we are working almost side by side. I take a moment to step outdoors to smell the freshening breezes, note the autumn leaves curl up on the deck around the bird bath. I return to find her nowhere around, call out her name. The echo of her voice careens up to me from far below.

She has left her walker at the top of a flight of steep, shallow stairs, has somehow made her way to her office to work on various pressing matters, I presume. She has avoided catastrophe but given me a twinge of pain in my chest as I run downstairs.

“What are you doing? Trying to create havoc?”

I find her gazing at the computer screen. It is open to Ebay. She is cheerfully eyeing turquoise jewelry, one of the interesting things she has a knack for collecting.

“No problem. The occupational therapist showed me how to do stairs. I’m fine.”

We admire jewelry and she makes a purchase. She stays longer as I work on more laundry. When she is done I follow her up the stairs with the walker-how did that get down there? did she throw it?–and find her footsteps sound.

It must be time for me to go at last.

Later I pack up, then complete chores. I find myself being inclined to stay for lunch and then dinner. There is more I can do. We three watch a reality show that veers between terrible and touching, and chat and snack. My sister’s partner says we’ve been in a girl’s club all week. We’ve talked about books and God and therapy and our children and more. I have found my rhythm within the context of theirs, and the overall peaceful atmosphere has begun to fit like a slouchy, warm sweater.

Now it is time to change gears and re-enter my separate life. I wonder how they will manage. Likely as well as before I arrived. And they have good friends who will stop by and call. Allanya will be released of her chronic pain and stand fully on her feet sooner rather than later, find more intriguing experiences, projects to spearhead, rocks to paint (another hobby), estate sales to take me to, people to help.

I imagine her back in charge as she likes to be, life realigned with healed hip, legs striding together rather than against one another. She’ll work up to a full gallop. I’ll be trying to catch up with her to share a cup of coffee, go treasure hunting or attending a chamber music or dance concert. But, Lord, thank You for this opportunity to be of simple use, to serve. For healing her so well. What a pleasure to be a sidekick, a privilege to help out my big sister when she is in need and to be assured we’ll soon be in cahoots once more.


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