Because That’s What Sisters Do

By Jacqueline Palsha

It was her day, but I knew she’d be the first to compliment my dress, my shoes, my hair…she would hardly notice her own, though she sparkled in a gown of her own design. There she was in satin and silk, the center of attention, and yet, her eyes sought mine like a schoolgirl in search of a good grade.

It had been a long time since she’d looked at me like that, and I wanted her to know that it was okay, that it was her turn to take center stage. I wanted her to know how beautiful she looked and how perfect everything was, but, as usual, her compliments went before mine.

That’s the way it had always been with us. Even at the lowest points in my life, she made me feel special with an admiring look, a kind word, a hug. Though a mere 11 months separated us in age, she played the role of younger sibling to perfection.

When I was on a crusade, she was my number one supporter. When I was in trouble, she banished herself to our room to be with me. When I was sick, she inevitably had symptoms that mimicked mine, and when I asked “Why?” her answer was always the same: “Because that’s what sisters do.”

Together we made quite a pair. We were best friends. For a long time, we were inseparable – but something changed. It was barely noticeable at first: a closed door, a sleepover without her, a sweater that was off limits and certain rights of passage that I wanted to myself.

When I decided I was old enough to trade my childish tights for my mother’s pantyhose, she swiped a pair for herself as well. With them bagging heavily around our ankles, we admired ourselves in the full-length mirror behind our bedroom door.

“Wow, you look so pretty,” she swooned, mesmerized by my wrinkly, cinnamon-cloaked calves. “How do I look?”

I turned to her with a critical eye, allowing my gaze to travel noticeably up and down her shapeless legs. “You look ridiculous,” I balked. “Why do you have to copy me so much?”

Her face crumbled. Her shoulders slumped. Quietly she answered, “Because that’s what sisters do,” but she no longer sounded so sure.

It was the last time she’d remind me of that. As our Barbie dolls gathered dust in the basement, the years drifted steadily between us. It became customary to shield the phone from her ears, to spend Saturday nights without her and to let her go her own way, just as I went mine.

And she did.

She blossomed into a carefree lover of life who shunned stress and wilted under pressure, while I became a driven perfectionist always harder on myself, and those around me, than I cared to admit. Still, there were occasions, although infrequent, when I knew she was there, just as she had been before, to lead the applause in my school plays, to wait expectantly for me to return from my first date, to listen when no one else would.

Then there was the accident. Her car was hit on her way home from school. I was the only relative they could reach, and I raced to the hospital to find her, my childhood soul mate, in a hospital gown and a neck brace. I watched as they tested her reflexes, her leg bobbing with every tap. She looked so fragile, so small. There wasn’t a scratch on her, and yet I fainted just the same.

I awoke in the next room with her hovering over me. Her smile was the first thing I saw, and I hugged her tight for all to see. I had never thought about losing her until that day. Little did I realize that in so many ways, I already had.

Maybe it’s part of growing up. Maybe it’s a matter of time ebbing slowly, almost imperceptibly away, until the things we take for granted in the present comprise to shade our distant past.

As she asked me to fix her veil, it all came flooding back, a tide rippled with memories. In an instant, she was no longer the bride-to-be. She was again the girl with whom I’d shared a room, the amiable playmate who had followed my lead, the sister who’d stepped aside so I could lead my own life – not because she wanted to – but because she loved me enough to let go.

As she sought my reassurances and giggled about her garter belt, it was as if we were caught in a game of dress-up, staring once more into the mirror behind our bedroom door. After all the years and all the distance, we recaptured a part of our childhood in that moment, the most precious part, the part that only a sisterhood can create.

I knew her better than anyone. I knew how to calm her nerves and how to make her laugh. I knew how to say just what she needed to hear and how to give her the confidence to walk into a new life knowing I would always be there for her. I knew how to be her sister because she had showed me how.

As her maid of honor, I fretted over all of her last-minute details, and when she searched for something old, I slipped the charm bracelet from my wrist. It was an heirloom she’d asked to borrow many times before, but I had always said “No.” Now, I slid it over her hand, a gift for her to keep, and she looked at me with a question in her eyes, the same one I used to ask.

“Why?” she mouthed.

I squeezed her hand and smiled bright. “Because that’s what sisters do,” I said, embracing the power those words possessed. “Because that’s what sisters do.”

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