Learning Not to be My Sister’s Keeper

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One of the hardest parts of moving (and lacking the funds to justify an $800 round trip ticket) is missing major family events.

This week, my sister had a baby girl. She has ten fingers, and ten tiny toes, a mouth, ears, elbows, kneecaps, lungs, liver, and two eyes too large for their still half sealed lids. It is all a miracle, because the baby came six weeks early. Failure to thrive. She weighs 3 pounds and has no baby fat on her tiny, wizened body. I love her already.

It is not so different from when her brother was born. Jasper had wrapped the umbilical cord around his face, so his eye was swollen and his face was bruised and his nose was smashed. Our little Quasimodo, my sister said.

When Jasper was born, I was going to school nearby, so I would come over on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to help babysit while his parents were working and in classes. I fed him, I changed him, I cleaned the cottage cheese he spewed across the kitchen floor, I held him when he was sick, I danced with him on lazy afternoons, Jasper on tiptoe, hands in the air, making circles. I washed him and dried him, tickling his pudgy stomach to distract him from the dimming lights. I fed him a bottle, sang his lullaby, kissed his cheek and put him, sleeping now, into the crib.

But this time I am in North Carolina, thousands of miles away from being able to do anything useful, and I am struck by the disappointment I feel in not being able to be aunt, or sister. I feel profound longing, not just to see my sister and niece but to help them, to do the dishes or clean the house or make a dinner.  And I have been helpful to them, sans my mistaking cayenne pepper for chili powder in Jasper’s chili.

Yet I recognize that my absence now will not be an insurmountable loss. All that I could do can and in fact will be done by other people. So it is strangers who I am left to trust, strangers who I hope will see this baby, this sister, this family, and love them, already.

In my family’s church members call one another brother and sister. I find in this title a promise, that promise of sister. No doubt a council has already been held, needs determined, assignments made, legions of crockpot meals and cookies delivered, and were Jasper not with his grandma in Wyoming, he would find a warm home away from the sterile halls of the hospital to play in. These people, that organization, it is all a miracle.

And our religion is not the only example of faithful watchmen. It has been like this a long time, perhaps even before Henry Ford began producing and families diffused across the wide expanse, far from the familiar lands their people had inhabited for centuries. And it continues: children leaving home, mothers, like Jochebed, trusting in the kindness of faceless villagers from faceless villages.

I have great faith in the compassion of my sister’s village, because I have felt that same compassion here, 2,159 miles away. We are perhaps the youngest couple in our church, and it was confirmed last week that I am the youngest married woman. Just a little girl, compared to many. But since moving we have been invited to dinners, lectures, choir, book club, and pick up soccer. These strangers from our church have given us job help, Lebanese food, tips to city life, assignments. Brother. Sister. So pleased you are here. Truly, I believe they are.

Heather, Justin, Jasper, baby. I miss them, like the rest of my family. And always, I will miss them. But I am learning now to trust in the actual brotherhood of strangers, and in the significance of a foil-covered casserole dish left anonymously at the back door on a lonely Tuesday night.

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