My sister stands at the counter, chopping carrots. The light comes from a window behind me, blinding me to much more than her form and the denseness of her body in the looser air around her, the sound of the knife on the cutting board. Her daughter runs around her legs, out of the kitchen to find a different book or toy, then back again before she rediscovers the cupboard of Tupperware at her eye level and takes every one of them out, banging and drumming and cooing. My sister brushes a stray lock of hair away from her cheek with the back of the hand holding the knife, pauses as if listening to something, and then reaches for the celery. The chopping sound resumes.
People say that we look, we sound, alike. On the phone, people can’t tell us apart. When her friends meet me, they get a look of surprise. When my friends meet her, they look back and forth as if the universe just changed it’s laws.
How it is possible, I don’t know. The difference, I mean.
She is three years my younger. She has this young family, a husband who adores her. She has succeeded in life where I have miserably failed. She loves, mostly, her job, although she shrugs and calls it a job. She has friendships that span decades. A mortgage. Two cars. Her body is like my body – is my body – in so many ways. But she is an inch and a half taller, a half a shade darker, with eyes that lean toward blue instead of green. Her body – my body, in so many ways – has a vibrancy and a hue to it mine doesn’t. Mine is hunkered, driven by coffee and cigarettes even after the booze has been kicked. My sister is a woman who drinks milk and takes prenatal vitamins.
How is it possible, I wonder, looking at the little girl drumming on a 70s issue avocado green Tupperware bowl, that my sister and I are the one family, come from the same sprung genes, ate the same foods and slept on sheets that smelled of the same fabric softener, rode in the back of the same car, that she should be she and I should be alcoholic?
My sister is my Jesus, I think, clearing the table of hats and gloves and toddler toys to lay it with dinner dishes. I don’t pray, never have. Not even those fox hole things I hear people talk about at their worst. The please save me or I am so sorry or just hold me for a little while, please.
I don’t pray. I have a sister, instead.
It can make me bend with shame to think of what I have done to her, alcoholically. How our relationship is defined mostly by my chronic disappointing nature. How she had to be concerned about me. I am sure there are reasons for her to be angry with me, ashamed of me, fed up with me.
But she is my Jesus. I was scared for you, she says, and shrugs. As if she would go on answering the phone, plotting around my disappearances, making up for me, holding ground I could not hold. But she was not stupid, and not a martyr. She told me four years ago that she would not accept my evening phone calls; I had to call during the day, because in the evening she never trusted that I was sober. I never asked her for money, or to rescue me. I tacitly knew that she wouldn’t do such a thing.
I knew that she would say no, hang up, and then sit down to weep for me instead.
She was the only person I held onto in the long seven years of hiding from my family, divorcing or running away from them. That was the longest and most formal and most recent. But I have always run away from them, more or less.
Not her, though. Her I stayed in contact with. Not that we were close, or that I dared to tell her everything. But I would call. I wonder, watching her turn to the stove and then wipe her hands on a dish towel, how much she knew. She is my grace. She has accepted me back, accepted my recovery in stride. She does not, like I’ve seen and felt other people do, listen politely while I say I’m an alcoholic and trying to change while clearly regarding the past as a more reliable source of information, nor does she demand my recovery of me or seem to expect it to be any certain thing at all. She doesn’t ask for proofs or demonstrable changes of character, a better sister bright shiny and new.
She just stands there, chopping vegetables, now bending at the knee to reach her daughter’s level.
It is easy for me to drift into abstractions and get lost there. Or to listen to what people say (recovery! higher power! the fourth dimension!) and feel nothing at all. Or to feel that I don’t belong, I’ll have to leave, I might as well be drinking again. People say ‘Jesus’ and I wonder just what in the hell they mean, what exactly they feel when they say belief, what exactly happens in their brains and hearts when they say ‘salvation’ or ‘grace’ or ‘religion’.
She is my grace. And the impossibility lies there: how she is who she is and I am not. How I have this long, such a long record of paltry and sick and usually violent or jaded or manipulative relations to the world and she does not. This isn’t a question of Jesus, but of my skin and hands and genitals.
I have to look at the hands, listen to the voice. I have to hold my breath and listen to hers. I have to try to make 20 and more years of hurt into something that doesn’t hurt any more, and this is daunting.
What do you think I should do with my life, eh? I ask her, later, while she holds the sleeping girl at her chest. My father, who is in no way my grace, asked me this over dinner. He has a way of making me bite down hard even into jello.
She rocks back and forth a good dozen times before she says anything. Her hand under the girl’s bottom, and the other hand at the back of the girl’s head. I see her sigh and her gaze drops down to her daughter’s hair before lifting to the window and the field beyond it.
I think you should try to be happy, she answered.