The Little One
One of my earliest memory from childhood is of playing on the floor by an old wooden lamp stand we had in the living room. My parents came into the room and towered over me, backlit by the bank of windows on the far wall.
“Honey,” they said. I looked up from my mission of reaching the stand’s summit so that I could gain access to what I had become convinced was a magical lamp.
“We have something very important to tell you. You are going to have a little brother or sister soon!”
I don’t remember any confusion about the meaning of that statement. All I can remember is thinking quite clearly, “well it’s about time you got here!” I can’t recall feeling worried that she was going to take anything away from me- not attention or toys. I do remember an overwhelming feeling of completion.
Within hours of her birth I was there ready to begin my watch on ‘the little one.’ Some people are lucky enough to meet others in their lives with which they share an immediate deep connection.
Kurt Vonnegut called this group of people a ‘karass’- a group that is brought together during the course of their lives because together they are meant to perform some task in the name of god. When it is a romantic connection, we call it soulmate. I have been fortunate enough to meet many such people throughout out my life and I am beyond blessed that one of them is my little sister.
Sara was and always will be my first true love- the person who I felt an instant and absolute obligation to love, protect and nurture. She was MY little sister and since the day she was born I have always considered her my responsibility.
I AM my sister’s keeper.
I do not mean this to imply that I have not alway felt an unconditional love and bond with my parents. I felt that it was their duty to love and take care of both of us and it was my part in that family system to watch over Sara. My mother has always been extremely attentive and competent in our care; there were years of my life when my dad would work so much that we rarely saw him. He often had to travel far away for press checks as this was what had to be done to support the family and pay the bills.
Just as it was my dad’s responsibility to earn the money, it was my mom’s to take care of the home, the kids and animals. To me it seemed that my place in this effort was to keep track of my sister.
I have always thought us fortunate to have been created three years apart- any older and I may have been more indifferent, any younger and I may have been prone to jealously. Three years allowed us the ability to both learn and teach one another. She was not so young that she was unable to do the things I could. I was not old enough yet have learned all the tricks of one skill or another.
I always felt she was completely capable of doing anything I could- a theory I would often make sure was correct by teaching her how to do whatever it was. I have always thought of her as the ‘Gobets 3000,’ a newer and more improved version of me and my abilities.
In fact, in my opinion, she has surpassed me in every way at pretty much everything. I have never been jealous of her achievements and abilities though I distinctly remember a period of time when I resented her for being so cute.
She also went through a slimy phase when she always seemed to be oozing something from somewhere and wanted nothing more than to wipe it all over me with hugs and kisses.
At those times early in our relationship I do remember pangs of annoyance, but they passed quickly and we truly became each other’s favorite people.
Since none of my parent’s friends had kids, during the weekends we found ourselves quite often surrounded by adults. Goofy, silly and often immature adults, but adults nonetheless. We passed countless hours with each other and as we grew, I beat my parents to teaching her almost every major skill or life lesson that a person learns growing up.
I taught her how to ride a bike without training wheels. I can now admit that I may have been a little overzealous during the process.
I thought it would be a good technique to run her full speed across the back yard, let go, yell “pedal, pedal, pedal!” and let her crash into a pile of stuff staged by the fence at the far side. After all, I was trying to teach her how to RIDE a bike, not how to STOP a bike. In hindsight I probably should have taught her about the brakes at some point in between pedaling and crashing.
She has always been a trooper, trusting me way more than she probably should have, blindly believing that if I was telling her to do it- she wouldn’t get too hurt or in trouble.
When one of my ‘lessons’ resulted in tears, I would often do something silly right away to make her laugh- stopping the crying and limiting the chance my mom would hear her and I would get in trouble.
After a while she caught on to this trick and when she was about five she told me it “wasn’t fair” that I was getting out of timeouts. I reasoned with her that if either of us gets in trouble and has to go in timeout that the other one has no one to play with, so it’s like us both getting punished. She looked at me with those deep blue eyes and frowned, a look she is still famous for. She wanted to argue that I was only saying that so she wouldn’t tell on me for “getting her not tell on me.” After a minute she agreed that my logic was sound and realized if we interrupt our games with tattling and timeouts, no one wins and we lose more time playing.
Since then, she has never tattled on me and that is something I don’t think many older siblings can honestly say about their younger ones. Just another reason why she is my favorite sister.
As soon as I learned anything new or exciting about life, I would blab to her shortly there after. This resulted in her knowing at a young age there was no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Leprachans, Unicorns etc.
I also told her about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll before anyone else had the chance. None of this was done out of malice- I always felt if I knew something, she should know it too. Plus I wanted to discuss things with her like “oh my god, did you know that Mom and Dad have our baby teeth in the secretary?! Let me show you!”
My parents and I believed that knowledge was the only thing we could give her for protection in this world when we were not physically with her. I have always been fiercely protective of her. This resulted in most of her friends since grade school (and even now as adults) having a healthy fear of me.
That’s something that I don’t quite get- it makes me wonder what kind of stories she tells her friends when I’m not there. I guess my long-standing promise to kill anyone who causes her pain or discomfort could have something to do with it.
To her credit I have never had to murder anyone as she knows how to have healthy, honest relationships with other people and has created a life filled with the respect of others.
For that I am grateful.
The fact remains that I will fly to the other side of the world, kill you in the middle of the night, cut you up, cook you and serve ‘you carnittas’ the next day at an impromptu taco stand if you fuck with my sister.
So yeah, I truly have no idea why they’re all scared of me.
We have a long-standing argument that began when Sara was four or five, right at the beginning of her ability to express abstract concepts and hypotheticals. I was being a brat to her one day and she said something like, “I wish you would go away and not come back for five and twenty million minutes!!!”
To which I sassed back, “doesn’t matter. Even if I do, I’ll still be your sister!” She blinked at me and frowned her Sara frown.
I had unknowingly hit upon one of the first absolute truths about life and I think we both felt that statement touch a chord in us … but we had to test it. So began the great search for an ‘unsisterizing’ situation.
We tried everything:
“What if Mom and Dad breakup and move far away from each other and I live with Dad and you live with Mom?”
-“I’ll still be your sister”
“What if I’m kidnapped by monkeys and they make me their Monkey Queen and I live in the jungle and only speak monkey and never come home for Christmas?”
-“I’ll still be your sister”
“What if Aliens come down from space and they take away everyone that has blonde hair and I live in outer space forever?!!”
-“I’ll still be your sister”
On and on it went for years and years, “What if I die?” “What if you blow up?” but the constant answer still held true: “I’ll still be your sister.”
I am grateful that we stumbled upon this truth early in life, my Mom always called us Yin and Yang, two halves of one whole. As a child she had bleach blonde hair and a Tinker Bell voice. She was an exceptionally small child and even as an adult she stands only 5’1” tall. I have always been stout, sturdy and stronger than most kids of my age, boys included.
I have Hazel green eyes, olive skin, auburn hair and am not tall by any means, but WAY taller than her. She was born with stormy blue eyes, thick blond hair, very fair skin and was much smaller than everyone around her. She developed into a buxom, curvy woman and I am far more box shaped.
We are so very opposite in so many ways. She never gets motion sick, EVER. I can’t watch a movie in the Imax without feeling like shit the rest of the day. She has always wanted to see the world and I have no such drive since the physical nature of travel doesn’t agree with my body- never has and probably never will.
She can be very secretive and I am far too often a babbling open book. She used to be prone to nose bleeds and would get them if she splashed water on her face that was too hot; I have never had one.
I was a rambuncsious and difficult child; she was mellow and content. I have never had poison oak (knock on wood) despite nearly constant exposure, while she can get it FROM me.
All those differences have never made me feel distant from her.
It’s funny how when she was born I thought of her as my first big responsibility and as she grew I came to realize she was a person I looked up to and believed in. Matter of fact, by the time she was six or seven she had become my hero.
Her abilities have always amazed me. According to IQ tests taken when I was 19 or so I am above average intelligence. I fall somewhere in the “highly intelligent” range, where as Sara is well into the “genius” end of the scale. She has been enrolled in “gifted” classes and programs since kindergarden and was still always painfully bored with school.
At three years old she would sit down and put together a 150 piece puzzle while I looked on, fidgeting for a few minutes before tearing off to see what Mom was doing since I knew she probably would not stop until it was done and DEFINITELY didn’t want my help on HER puzzle.
In the grocery store she would pick an isle, sit down at the beginning of it and pull all the items forward on the shelf lining them up perfectly flush with the shelf, something that I later found out is called ‘facing.’ My Mom could leave her there and shop, me running back every few minutes to make sure she was still there.
She always was.
By the time we had finished shopping she was done with the row and was ready to go. Her focus and attention have always been astounding, even though it was this same ability to focus intensely and block out the world around her that could come off as flighty at times.
I can’t lie- I used her tenacity for intense focus and solving puzzles to my advantage sometimes. When Mom went back to school to get her massage therapy license, we were left home alone a lot.
I made up this game called “Houdini.” Sara of course was Houdini and I was her assistant who tied her up and put her in our ‘inescapable box of mystery’ so that she could free herself and emerge triumphant- showered by applause from the astounded cats, dogs and stuffed animals lined up in the living room for the show.
Like all illusionists, there was a trick- the set up was ridged. I suppose a more accurate term would be impossible. Our ‘inescapable box’ was the hall closet with a metal door knob lock attached around the inside knob. It made any door knob completely inaccessible.
On days when I was feeling generous I would tie her up in a way she could escape … when I was being a jerk I wouldn’t. I would sit out in the living room watching whatever I wanted to watch on T.V. while she would shout updates. “My hand is out!” or “I think I almost have the lock off this time.”
Eventually she would relent and ask to be let out, always insisting that THIS time she had almost gotten it and me agreeing fervently that this must be so. At one point she started sneaking bobby pins in her hair, realizing that the key was the only real way to out smart the knob lock. She never got it open and I am pretty sure that there are now laws against childproofing that intense now-a-days, probably because of big sisters like me. It also might explain why she is now an accomplished lock picker, one of the many random and slightly dubious talents she possesses as an adult.
The summer of her twelfth birthday tested my theories on the protective properties knowledge brings. She had the good fortune to go to Europe with a friend of my dad’s and his family. He had a daughter about the same age that would be going to a boarding school in France to learn French before they spent a few weeks at their chateau (yes, they had a chateau in the South of France- turns out you are only as poor as your most generous friends.)
All I cared about was that she came back with Belgian chocolates, which I had on good authority were the best in the world. This was the first trip in what would become her constant mission to see far off places and record other ways of life.
I was flabbergasted when this trip materialized. All I knew is that one morning over breakfast she had mentioned that she wanted to learn French and a month later my dad offers up this trip.
Where had I gone wrong?!
True to form she was made to pay off half the trip at five dollars an hour doing work around the property. By the time we were eight years old it was policy that my parents would cover half of any large expense and we had to work off the other half doing task for my Dad. Our normal chores did not count in this effort and I think it took Sara a couple of years to pay this one off completely.
We sent her off from San Francicso International Airport, a ritual I didn’t realized at the time would eventually become an almost annual event for our family. I sent her off with the condition that she should not bother to come back without the biggest box of Belgian chocolates she could find.
I could not believe that she was leaving me alone for the first summer in our lives; this would be the longest time we had been apart and I was beyond sad. The only thing that I would accept as payment for such an infraction was a TON of creamy hazelnut infused confections, or else.
I have never dealt with being apart from her very well. How could I protect her if I’m not even on the same continent?
I missed my playmate, my friend, my partner in crime, but most of all I missed my sister. There is a quote from The Sawshank Redemption that has always reminded me of my feelings toward her in this regard:
“Sometimes it makes me sad, though… Andy (Sara) being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”
I like to think that I did my part to prepare her quite well for life, but letting her go into the world turned out to be very hard for me to do. Since I lived at home through college, Sara was the first to move out of the family home when she was accepted on a partial scholarship to Lewis and Clark in Portland.
We all dove up as a family with all her stuff to help her move in to the dorm and have an extended ‘goodbye’ weekend. We drove up the coast and ended up stopping for lunch at an Applebee’s, something we would not have done had there been any other option. After lunch I took the wheel and we continued driving north with my mom and sister in the back and Dad in front helping me navigate a very dangerous mountain pass in Northern California.
All of a sudden there is a shrill cry from the back seat “Mom?? MOM! EWWHSGEWW!!! Em, Mom is throwing up! Pull over!”
On that particular part of the pass there is no road or surface beyond the fog line and I couldn’t do anything. I watched the rear view mirror in horror as Sara started shoving all MY stuff toward my Mom on the other side of car.
She hid behind my blanket like a spectator in the front row at sea world and only breaching the barrier long enough to throw another article of MY clothing at our exploding mother. Directly behind me in the back seat, the woman who had taught us the importance of communicating as soon as you felt sick in a car, sat there sickly with a lap full of my cloths covered her newly refunded southwest chicken bacon ranch wrap.
Down the road about a mile there was a pull out and I turned into it like it was a NASCAR pitstop. The doors all opened before we had come to a complete stop and all of us escaped what had become a pod of terror.
Sara looked at my Mom in disbelief “What was that?! All of a sudden you just EXPLODED! Why didn’t you warn me?”
“I didn’t know I was going to do it till it was happening. What do you want me to do? I opened my mouth to say ‘I feel sick’ and all the came out was… THAT!” She said pointing to all of my anointed clothing that was pouring out of the back seat, seemly trying to escape too.
We all began the process of cleaning up my mother, a first for all of us, but something she had done on our behalf many times before.
Sara was suffering from “PDSD”(post dramatic stress disorder) and refusing to come within ten feet of the car- she just stood by the bushes of the pullout like some sort of anthropologist observing a new tribe of natives preforming a strange ritual.
Since I have a strong stomach, it fell to me to clean up ‘ground zero,’ a task made all the more enjoyable by the fact that my mother and I had eaten the same thing at lunch. We got the car to a place were it was fit for habitation again, strapped the bag of my stuff onto the roof and continued on our way.
By the time we got to the hotel that night we had managed to regain our appetite and while my mom went up to the room to lay down, the rest of us searched Eureka for some decent food or whatever we could find that resembled Applebee’s as little as possible.
It took quite some time and when we got back to the room my Mom was up and about. She had even managed to clean all the stuff, a necessity since I hadn’t brought much else with me that weekend.
I decided to take a nice hot bath in the huge claw foot tube. It was wonderful.
I love baths in hotels.
All the hot water you want! I got out and dried off feeling refreshed … until I walked out of the bathroom and saw my Mom folding my clothes on the bed. “Wow that WAS fast!” I said, amazed that all my stuff was back to its pre-apocalyptic state.
“Well there was a laundry room on the next floor, so it wasn’t too bad after all.”
There was a horrible pause as the gears in my head locked into place, “Mom?” I started, realizing I probably didn’t want an answer to the question I was about to ask. “You didn’t just put all the stuff from the bag into the washing machine, did you?”
“No I rinsed it all off in the bathtub first,” she said, not looking up.
We both stopped and looked at each other and listened as the bath water ran in the tub that now contained my sister. She hadn’t really thought about it and until that moment I hadn’t either.
We sat there, not knowing whether to laugh, cry or run screaming from the room in search of bleach and a scouring pad. We opted for laughing since it was kind of funny and once we started we couldn’t stop.
At one point Sara called out from the bathroom “Hey! What’s so funny?!” We stopped and looked at each other again, horrified.
“Should we tell her?” I whispered. My mom paused.
“No, I think she has been through enough today,” and that set us back into gales of laughter. I choked out something about a funny TV show and we fell back on our beds holding our aching bellies. It had been a long day.
The events of the drive up had been a nice distraction from the purpose of the trip, which was to bring Sara to college and then LEAVE her- something I was not happy about in the slightest.
I was about to lose my live-in buddy, my down the hall mate, and I was not taking it well. We spent the next night at a hotel in Portland. Sara and I had our own room and by the time my parents knocked on our door for dinner we had pushed our two beds together and sandwiched the ironing board upside down between them. Then stretched all our sheets over it tucked in on either side.
We had created, MONDOFORT! Our parents didn’t seem in the least bit surprised by the structure and offered the extra pillows from their room for extra comfort, supplies which we quickly accepted. That night we spent our last night together under one roof in our little fort. It was awesome.
The next day was one of the saddest of my life.
I know that by the time you are old enough buy booze legally you should probably be able to handle your little sister going to college one state away, but I could not. We toured the grounds of Lewis and Clark, found her mail box, inspected her dorm room, got her class schedule, moved all her stuff in and met her roommate and her family. All the stuff you do when dropping a kid off at college and I was numb through it all, not really believing what was happening.
When it came time to actually leave I started crying and could not stop. My parents were fine, a few tears and a lot of hugs. I was not ok, a dark cloud had descended around me and I couldn’t see outside my own loss.
I should have been strong for Sara, lord knows it was a much bigger adjustment for her, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. My parents realized that we needed to go so they packed me up and we headed back to the city, for dinner. It felt so wrong to leave her. My whole life had been spent making sure we DIDN’T leave her by herself in strange cities and now we had done just that!
I quietly leaked though dinner, my parents cracking jokes and having realized I WAS of legal age bought me a couple drinks. I knew that she was fine, and truly by that time in my life I was rarely home. Full time work and school had taken over my days. I just kept on thinking that she wouldn’t be there any more when I would come home late at night.
Sara doesn’t sleep when others do and never has. She was often up in the living room when I dragged in at 2 am and we would sit and talk or silently watch some late night show sharing a midnight snack.
It wasn’t much, but the realization that those days were over was a heartbreaking reality. I thought it was stupid for us to send her to college at all- I complained loudly that she has ALWAYS hated school and that the money in her college fund would be much better spent on travel. This was not an option for my parents who insisted (as they had with me) that a college degree was a necessity regardless of our other talents.
I knew she would be fine; she was smart, funny and easy to get along with. I knew soon she would have many friends and I wasn’t worried that her classes would be to hard for her. In short I was not worried about her at all.
She was at the beginning of an amazing journey. I guess most of all I was sad that we would not be sharing the same path anymore, that hers had gone left and I could not follow. I couldn’t protect or help, I just had to trust that she could do it. So began a new phase in both our lives.
Leaving her at college quickly proved to be one of the easier things I would have to watch her do. It wasn’t long after the end of her first semester that she announced her intentions to take a year off and travel, to … wait for it, Asia.
Yes, alone. A 5’1’’ blonde haired, blue-eyed 18-year-old on the other side of the fucking world. I had a small heart attack when she told me. She instantly saw my panic and started launching into the details of her plans.
She would go to Thailand first where she had enrolled in a course that offers a certification in teaching English. After that she would make her way to China, ending up in Tibet where she had found an orphanage looking for temporary English teachers.
I just stood there, mouth agape, catching flies. She went on telling me how safe she was going to be, blah, blah, blah.
I had known this was coming eventually, ever since she came back from Europe I had to face the fact that it was her life’s mission to boldly go where no Gobets has gone before. I was just hoping she would start out with a place a little closer to home and in less political upheaval.
True to form, her plans ended up putting her in Lhasa during the 40th anniversary of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. She had taught herself some basic Chinese over years of watching every single kung fu movie in the world (most of them in Chinese with English subtitles) and she had gotten an ‘A’ in her college Chinese course.
Nonetheless I was apprehensive about the whole thing- not that it made any difference. I knew she was going no matter what.
She was gone a total of nine months that year, spending a good deal of time in Thailand where she of course made many friends. Unbeknownst to us she slipped into Cambodia and Burma briefly so that her tourist visa in Thailand could be renewed, something we only found out later.
We had been looking though her amazing pictures of the trip and she scanned over one of a vine covered temple- “that’s in Cambodia,” she said flippantly.
“When were you in CAMBODIA?!” we all yelled at the back of her head.
“oh, I uh…”
Her little detours into other countries didn’t quite compare with what she had done while in Tibet. After spending couple of months teaching at the orphanage in Lhasa in the shadow of the Dalai Lama’s abandoned palace, she embarked on the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash, following a traditional route that goes back thousands of years.
Yes, she is that cool.
She told us about this part of the trip, but failed to mention that in order to travel long distances in Tibet, the standard procedure is to hitchhike. Basically she had hitchhiked across Tibet at 19, hiking in the Himalayan mountains and anointing herself as she went- in the holy waters of sacred lakes.
It was at this was the point when I gave up ever being surprised again by the things my sister has done.
She has surpassed every goal that I have had for her and turned into one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She ate a snake head for breakfast on her 19th birthday, she has seen Mt. Everest with her own eyes, been to Shangrila, tubed down the Mei Kong river (this was in a separate trip back to Asia) hopped a train vagabond style from Oregon to Chicago and back again, danced in several fountains in Las Vegas, has a functional knowledge of five languages, skydives like it’s nothing and has done the world’s tallest bungy jump.
I am more grateful with each year of her life to call her Sister.
I never had heroes growing up, I didn’t idolize anyone on TV or in history. As an adult I realized that this was because the accomplishments of the people closest to me outshined any public figure I was aware of.
My sister may be the best example of this. She may not be perfect, but she has created a life by living her dreams and not letting anything (including me) stand in her way.
The force of her conviction and self-reliance have taken her around the world. She has created some of the most beautiful objects and images I have even seen and there has never been any doubt in my mind that she will do great things.
I truly believe that someday she will be a hero to a generation of children as she was to me when I was a child. She has done much more than just those few things I have listed, but I will not go into further detail about them since that is her life and her stories and they deserve to be told first hand. I wasn’t there so I can not attest to any particulars of her life … plus she is a MUCH better writer than me.
She is also a much better photographer as you can see for yourself:
I think it is this feeling of distance that I feared when we left her in Portland all those years ago. Now, as I look back on photos from recent trips back west, I have found that I can rediscover my own sister’s face.
Something that is both amazing and sad all at once.
Seeing her now only a few times a year, I can look on her image without the familiarity I had before-when I had become accustom to seeing her face everyday.
I am find myself awestruck by her beauty.
Having the ability to see her as an adult apart from the baby I watched grown into a (mostly) full grown human. I enjoyed sharing the daily events of life with her and now, during our greatest adventures, we are half a world away from one another. “I guess I just miss my friend.”