My oldest sister, Cherry, was more or less a mystery me to me as I grew up right across the hall from her, on the second floor of our family home. As I would always and forever be three, long years behind her in age, and because 10 years old feels light years away from 13, my view of Cherry was slightly hazy, and much of her daily routine remained cloaked behind her closed bedroom door. Even with her living space just a few feet away from mine, by the time I was conscious enough to notice, it seems she was a million miles away, and a bit of a recluse, with her nose in the books, I imagined.
I imagined it wrong. Admittedly, my sister was a raging perfectionist, and driven to succeed in her schoolwork, but by the time she was 12 or 13, she was also being seduced by a terrible disorder that would torment her for years into the future.
The earliest memories play like slow-motion music videos charged with late-60s imagery, of bell-bottom, stretch knit pants and legs that go on forever, moving in rhythm to the grooves of Marvyn Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations. Cherry was a dancer. She was also drop dead gorgeous with long brown, Carol Ault hair, and make-up that boosted her capitol as a female, giving her the air of a professional model. The tomboy of the family, I was in awe of her style, grace, and maturity. Thinking back, however, I think these images that I have of my big sister, while mature and sensuous in nature, are images of a 13 or 14 year old girl moving at light speed through her adolescence.
She was stunning, authentically and naturally, and influenced heavily by societal interpretations of beauty as conveyed in films and magazines. Twiggy’s rise to claim her 15 minutes of worship had set things in motion during the 60s for both men and women to permanently weave a new waif-like impression of sexuality into our feminine template. Experiencing the typical insecurity that grips us all in adolescence, along with the complication of living publicly on stage as a performer, Cherry had officially judged her healthy body unworthy by the time she hit 16. She started to diet, feeling the pressure to be at her beautiful best, and as she slimmed down, the positive feedback loop coming from family and friends caused her to push harder. She quit eating, exercised voraciously and even, abusively, and so began a dark journey through anorexia and bulimia that would hold her in its brutal, hypnotic grip.
As I grew up, I slowly became aware of her particular brand of brokenness although I didn’t really seek to understand. At least, I didn’t push beyond her self-imposed isolation to try very hard. She had worked tenaciously, quarantining herself behind a seamless façade of normalcy, needing friends and family members to believe she was “fine,” or “studying,” or “just under the weather.” She wore a mask that was sometimes convincing; still, there were scary household blow-outs, eruptions, when my parents suspected she was still acting out. Fearing she was forcing herself to eat too much, sleep too little, or exercise violently, Mama and Daddy attempted to regulate her activities; although they may have been right about her participation in these behaviors, we were all sadly and completely in the dark about her inability to do anything differently. She must have felt so lonely in a world surrounded by blame and helpless blank stares. My interest in my sister’s suffering was shallow at the time, but I was very young.
Honestly, I think I may have been slightly relieved when she met, married and moved in with her new husband Dan; I do remember being naively convinced that love would prevail. Romantically obsessed, I was pretty sure that love was the answer to everything. In my pre-pubescent underdeveloped adolescent cortex, my handsome new brother-in-law Dan would rescue her from all of this, this Hollywood madness. He was the knight in shining ardor, the brilliant theologically motivated, kibbutz-dwelling, Hebrew-speaking hero who showed up in her life just in the nick of time. After a year living in California as newlyweds, the hopeful couple moved away to find better days in the Pacific Northwest. There would be many rough days ahead.
With the geographical distance in place, Cherry and I grew even further apart, and over the decades, I would be no more aware of her on-going suffering than she would be of mine. My particular brand of brokenness swallowed up all of my attention, awareness and energy.
In the 70s, Cherry wrote a book, called Starving for Attention that tells her story, including the origin and nature of her illness, along with her painful fight for recovery, a process that didn’t begin until she had come to the bitter end, bottoming at 5’8” and around 87 pounds. My older sister didn’t choose this road for herself, but she embraced the truth of who she was and what she was up against, found a way through and told her story courageously. Many, many women facing a variety of eating disorders have shared with Cherry that her vulnerability comforted them, and gave them hope.
In the mental montage that holds Cherry in my memory, even a thorough description of her eating disorder can only paint broad, chaotic background strokes while a few more vivid, delicate strokes more accurately reflect the big sister I love.
The first of these delicate strokes, preserved in a corner of my early childhood memory like a vivid, swirling snapshot, captures the time my sister rescued me after I had stolen candy from a drug store. Acting as a friend and mentor, Cherry kindly intervened to ease my remorse, and facilitate a necessary and therapeutic plan for restitution. The monkey was already screaming directions from my back by the time I was 7 or 8 years old, and for reasons I can’t imagine due to the opulence of my childhood, I was already taking things that didn’t belong to me. I did this more than once, so I could indulge my compulsion for immediate gratification. In fact, for a season, I made sort of a dirty little habit of stealing, mostly food, but also, money for food. This is, even now, slightly humiliating.
I have used the following fig-leaf logic to cover my shame concerning my sticky fingers. There were many intimidating negotiations necessary to access junk food within my home system, all of which went through my mother; truthfully, it may have seemed easier to steal a cookie than try to earn or justify it. I knew full well that I would probably end up empty handed, feening for a fix. So, I pilfered whatever it was that I craved.
When I approached Cherry to guide me through the rocky waters of my legitimately earned guilt, she had immediate and non-judgmental compassion for my hunger and lack of discretion, opting to simply walk me through the appropriate reparations so that I could confess, make amends, and start over with a gloriously clean slate. She went to the store with me, paid my debt and covered my shame.
The next few strokes fleshing out my image of Cherry are more recent…and even sweeter.
Last summer, Cherry and I visited our LA family, chilling out for a week at our sister Lindy’s house so we could spend time together, riding bikes, watching movies, taking yoga classes and laughing our asses off (theirs, all more toned than mine). I was stunned one afternoon to find out that my uber-intelligent, eldest sister had been nurturing her own blog, a side-hobby I think she used, at least in part, as a discussion board for her business as a life coach.
Typically selfish in my response to this new information, I was quickly and deeply devastated.
I have been incubating this desire to write, keeping it under wraps because I am (mostly unconsciously) convinced that uncovering my writing before the right time will suck my power out. Saying this out loud, of course, makes this theory seem considerably less viable.
A few seconds after she shared that she had been writing, Cherry pulled up her personal blog on her website, and read me a short piece on the value of nurturing valuable, lasting friendships. She was transparently happy to share her writing, and embarrassingly, I had to breathe into the practice of listening well at that particular moment. As I mentioned before-I am selfish, and my need to be heard sometimes makes it hard for my ego to surrender my full attention. But, gradually, I took it in. She is a gifted communicator, her style, reminiscent of my father’s. Her vocabulary is well-honed to hit any target, and her formation of concepts, her ideation, is deep and meaningful. I surrendered my competitive instincts, and told her I wanted to hear more, and I did…want to. I was able to recognize this as an invitation to become acquainted with my sister again after years of dysfunction on my side of the street. I learned that while she is prone to prefer humor and playful diversion, she has an aptitude for weaving emotional depth seamlessly into a story, rich with imagery and embedded wisdom.
This moment uncovered a treasure in her that I didn’t know about while it also uncovered a deficiency in me, something that bothered me. I must have been nursing an almost imperceptible lack of trust in my sister; this is the only logical reason I could find myself surprised at her depth and agility as a writer, as a thinker. I see this now as a byproduct of my own spiritual immaturity, a blind spot in my perspective. I didn’t know her because I hadn’t taken the time to get to know her, or understand her particular brand of brokenness. I also hadn’t taken the time to understand her particular brand of brilliance as we are all certainly two sides of the same coin. At once sad that I had been missing this connection with my sister, and grateful for the present opportunity, I jumped into the pool of conscious contact. This was to my advantage, more than hers; due to the final brushstroke I am about to describe, I am convinced that I was the one that was absent, not Cherry.
Occasionally, our sister Lindy has obligations that take her away from the household where she monitors the continuing recovery of her son Ryan who experienced a life-altering traumatic brain injury over a decade ago.
One quiet evening “in,” when Lindy left Cherry and I along with our parents to spend time with Ryan, I remember feeling slightly responsible to serve as “stand in” for Ryan’s absent mom, a weird interpretation of my role as visiting auntie. At first, I just chatted with him, took pictures, and laughed with my handsome nephew at my father’s inappropriate bathroom humor; Ryan likes a skillfully told fart joke, but he really loves watching his Daddy Pat laugh at his own twisted humor.
To my embarrassment as the “surrogate mom,” I gently-but-firmly asked Ryan to “sit up straight,” a request I had heard Lindy make of him often. Coming from me, it was inappropriate, and Ryan shot me a glance that told me so. I instinctively responded by backing off, choosing instead just to enjoy the time with family.
But Cherry wasn’t the least bit confused about her role with Ryan that night. I can close my eyes right now, and revisit the image of my big sister moving toward Ryan’s wheelchair where she slipped behind him, and wrapped her arms around him in…not a hug, but a tender, sustained embrace. She stayed there, for at least a half hour, where she lovingly rubbed his shoulders, offering only her gentle, compassionate presence as close to him as she could get. No strings, no pressure.
I watched her, just took it in, with no script running through my head.
The next morning, it hit me. Cherry’s natural instinct was to be present for Ryan, to offer just what he needed in the moment: warm, familial love. Hands on, skin to skin, love.
Cherry, or Cherry-Like-the-Fruit, as I have heard my sister introduce herself countless times, is rich with a gooey, satisfying heart center, deeply and internally christened with the garnet stain of hard-won, tender compassion.
I may not have said this out loud, maybe not even to myself, consciously; but unconsciously, I am afraid I would have believed that our damage disqualifies us. I’m afraid I would have believed that our particular brokenness had already, long ago, disqualified Cherry and me, both… our usefulness, stomped out of us.
Disqualified from what? From healing, and being healers. From unity, and purpose. Certainly, we could no longer act out our parts in the play with our make-up smeared from tears…in our battered, war-torn costumes. Could we?
I’m still in awe of my sister for a lot of reasons. I love the way she laughs with every muscle and molecule in her body, wheezing out of control and out of breath. I love how her mind works, framing concepts with metaphor and artistic ideation. I appreciate her silver-lining super-power even though it teeters on the brink of denial or enabling.
But, this recent brush-stroke in the painting of Cherry-Like-the-Fruit that lives in my head…this snapshot of my big sister with her long, toned arms wrapped softly around Ryan, has turned out to be her most tender gift of all. Part of us will always and forever be broken; part of us will always and forever be whole.