When I mention that I have a sister to a new friend, they often assume that I am the youngest in my family. I laugh, not because it’s incorrect, but because I know that I express the younger sibling characteristics — a dash of naïveté, late bloomer-hood, an inclination to crying, obliviousness, and a self-absorbed point of view. Maybe it’s because our mom told Doreen, “You must take care of your older sister. She needs you.”
And so Doreen took care of me.
Our mom loves telling the story of how I was conceived. The story goes that after three long years of trying, she arranged for a procedure with a fertility doctor to unblock her fallopian tube. But on that fateful day, she forgot about the appointment and hung out with a friend at an amusement park to enjoy American wonder. When she returned to the doctor later, she discovered that she was pregnant with me. I was very wanted, but I also turned out to be a challenging child — anxious, tearful, timid — easily prone to cry.
In contrast, my sister was the opposite. Born 1 year, 2 months, 2 days after me, Doreen was the athletic one. The one who easily made friends. The one who proceeded down a recognizable career path, married, and became a homeowner.
When our mom was asked why she had two children so close in age, she answered, “My firstborn needed a companion.”
Indeed, Doreen was my first and still my best friend. We were inseparable. In all my memories, she’s always there — sharing our food or being mischievous. In the few hours that my sister and I were home alone after school, we dragged our parents’ queen mattress to the stairs to ride it down like a sled. We threw spitballs up to the 25-foot ceiling and drew on the redwood cabinets with chalk. When I lost my money in my room, she paid for sour candies at Longs Drugs and tacos at Taco Bell. When I was in a bad mood at school, she bought me French fries, which instantly cheered me up.
That is, Doreen was fully conscious of my challenges and behaved in ways to recognize that. When playing tag with others, she slowed down so I wouldn’t have to be It the entire time. When an angry old woman hit me with a cane because I was in the way on a sidewalk, she surreptitiously head-butted the woman. When a playground bully made fun of me at day camp, Doreen marched up to the girl and threw her hat into the water. Of course, I never asked for any of that, but I was thrilled every time it happened. Because someone noticed me. I wasn’t alone.
I wish that I could say that I did older sisterly things like showing her how to ride a bike, about menstruation, or applying for college. But she figured that out on her own and she wrote her college personal essay about how she helped me. Although we went our separate ways due to college and jobs, I sought a similar type of companion — all I wanted was to feel safe and comforted. It was not a surprise that my partner today is exactly like that.
My friends lament about the burden of raising young children, especially if they’re close in age — the childcare multiples with each child. But I don’t know what a person I would be without Doreen. Would loneliness have suffocated me as a child when I had trouble making friends? Would I have had more trouble expressing myself or finding confidence with peers? Doreen helped me become the person that I am today and I could not imagine a life without her.
As for Doreen, the burden surfaced when she became a mother herself. She had reflected on the mother she wanted to be — caring and loving no matter what the child was like — setting high ideals for herself. After my sister’s son was born, my sister called me, worried that her son wasn’t developing as expected and that nobody believed her that something was wrong. Her friends and even our own mother told her that it was going to be fine. Insecurity crept inside me — I was still a late bloomer, unmarried and childless. It felt silly to reiterate common strangers’ advice — change the diet, set up the crib differently, get medicine. What did I know?
But I did know. The cries of her infant pierced through the phone. In those cries, memories of my younger self surfaced — being hit by a cane and bullied at camp. Those memories started with tears, but they didn’t end with tears, because Doreen was present.
So I took a deep breath and said, “I am here. You’re a good mother.”