“It’s a girl!”
My grandmother gently nudged me awake, stage-whispering the words I longed to hear. It was the middle of the night, but I lay wide-eyed in the dark, too excited to sleep.
At school, I announced to the rest of the first grade, “I have a baby sister!” When we visited the hospital, my dad held me up so I could see through the nursery window. I pressed my forehead against the cool glass and peered down at her, my dad’s hands pressed firmly against my sides. Her name was Elizabeth, and she was a butterball. We called her Lizzy.
My older brother had been rooting for a boy. Always, he had been faster, stronger, sharper than me. For the first time, I felt I had won. I couldn’t believe my luck. It would be years until I would feel this way again.
At 2 and 3 years old, she would toddle up to my door, begging me to play. I would slam the door in her face. By the time she was in the first grade, I was jealous of her popularity. On the weekends, she was usually at a friend’s house, while my brother and I piled into the car with our parents. It didn’t matter if the destination was an antique shop, an estate sale or somewhere equally boring. I was content. The original crew—just the four of us—were together, and it felt so right.
I remember eavesdropping on my mom and her friends when I was in middle school. When the topic veered to parenting, the friend would remark on how helpful I must be and how the six-year age difference must eliminate any sibling rivalry between my sister and me. My mom never corrected them, but I knew I was neither helpful nor kind. I treated the little sister I had wanted so badly with contempt.
My mom said I resented my sister because I was jealous. She explained it was natural to direct my anger at the little sister who had displaced me as the baby of the family. I thought my mom’s theory was psychobabble. I insisted I hated my sister simply because she was annoying. She was always in my way. After school, she wanted to watch Clarissa Explains It All and Hey, Dude. I wanted to watch Oprah. I needed the computer for my homework, but she wanted to play another game of Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? She tried to wear whatever I was wearing and do whatever I was doing. I wanted her to go away.
Instead, I went away to college. At that point, our relationship changed. Living apart, we didn’t have to compete for scarce resources—privacy in the bathroom, the cordless phone, the last Milano cookie. With the newfound distance between us, I began to realize that perhaps my mom knew best.
About a month into my freshman year of college, she called me, in tears, certain our parents were on the brink of divorce. I tried to reassure her, explaining that they’d always fought a lot. As she sobbed into the phone, I wished I could hug her. In that moment, Lizzy stopped being my nemesis and started being the only girlfriend who truly gets me.
She visited me at college when I was a senior. She was 15. I lent her my clothes and took her to a party where we drank Cape Cods and whiskey sours. Afterward, we passed out on my futon bed. I made her promise not to tell our parents about this part of our weekend.
Before I left for graduate school, my mom insisted I go through the contents of my old room. Among the TrapperKeepers, cassette tapes and yearbooks was a card I made when my sister was a baby, sick with a high fever. With magic marker, I’d drawn a lady with a mass of black hair holding an oblong lump with two dots for eyes and a single squiggle of hair and a smaller person with brown pigtails. Above the drawing, I’d written:
I will help you. Will you help me? I will help you.
As an adult, I call my sister for everything and nothing at all. I call her to ask whether or not you can freeze quinoa, if it’s normal to want to murder your husband every time you have company, what she’s reading, why I can’t seem to pull off leggings with booties and how she manages to get along so peacefully with our mother. Just as I promised, I would help her her so many years ago, she helps me, despite the distance between us.
Just after the birth of my second baby, when I thought I would suffocate under the weight of my new life, my sister was there. Between sleep deprivation, breastfeeding problems, the exhaustion of mothering a toddler and a newborn, and the shock and shame that came with the sudden paralysis of the right side of my face, I couldn’t see things ever getting better. But when my sister made last-minute plans to fly out, I knew they already were.
Lizzy understands me in a way no one else does. We have the same parents, childhoods, inflections and mannerisms. Our shared history and common DNA are unique to us and us alone. Six-year-old me had no idea that the baby girl I’d wished so hard for would become my best friend.