Editor’s Note: In Rob’s November column, “Good Habit, Questionable Motive”, he told us of his mother’s unwavering focus on self-improvement, reading as much non-fiction as she could. It was this habit of continually gaining new knowledge that armed her with the ability to recognize, and the courage to follow up on, a life-changing opportunity. In honor of her love and tenacity, we offer Rob’s essay this month about the gift of his sister, Cindy.
I was sitting at the kitchen table eating my breakfast when I noticed, above me, a nail hole in the plaster where a picture had hung. It was a black spot on the wall directly across from my sister, who was sitting in a highchair busily eating her breakfast. I glanced over my shoulder toward the stove, and observed that Mother had left the room. It was my chance to have some fun. I knew my sister was terrified of insects, so I called her name and emphatically pointed toward the hole in the wall, “Cindy, look, a bug!”
She screamed in horror, and I doubled over laughing. Mother rushed into the room to see what was the matter. After assuring Cindy that it was not a bug, she yelled at me for scaring her. I acted contrite, but inside I was still chuckling in satisfaction. I was 7 years old.
I had been an only child for 4 years, when my life as the center of attention in my parents’ world ended with the birth of my sister. It’s tough for a 4-year-old to share the limelight with a sibling when he never had to before. What I didn’t realize was that my parents were giving me a gift. She was a purposeful gift on their part, but I wouldn’t come to appreciate that for decades.
I don’t recall how often I teased, tormented, or bullied, my sister, but it wasn’t enough for her to fear or dislike me. And, for that I’m grateful. By the time I was a teenager, our age and gender differences separated us emotionally, and I spent less and less time interacting with her. I wasn’t intentionally ignoring her, I was just too caught up in my own life to be fully aware of hers. That would continue until we were adults.
When we lost our Dad to a stroke, I was there for her when she asked, but I was still too immature to recognize her needs when she didn’t ask. Within a few years, we were both married, and only saw each other at the formal family gatherings at Mother’s house on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Then 11 years after Dad died, we lost Mother too. And, even though Cindy was my last tie to the memories of our parents, we saw each other even less.
My parents’ great gift to me might have been lost had Cindy and I not been divorced by our spouses. It was when we both went through our divorces that we truly discovered each other for the first time. We found the emotional strength we needed to survive in each other. We talked on the phone frequently, and gave each other pep talks as needed. And, in the years since, we have grown closer and closer.
Over the years I have come to love Cindy, not just as my sister but as one of my best friends. Now, I can fully realize and appreciate the value of the sacrifice my parents’ were making when they decided to have her.
In 1960, my father was diagnosed with kidney failure. His doctors told him there was no cure, that he was going to die, and that he and Mother needed to start making plans. The most remarkable plan they made was to have another child.
With my mother facing inevitable widowhood and single motherhood, she agreed to have a second child. Their motivation was to save me from being an “only child.” They decided to conceive a second baby, who might be born after Dad died, so that I would never be alone. As an adult, who has raised two children as a single parent, I find it astounding that they would have made such a decision. Yet, I am so happy they did.
You might recall from my previous article, Good Habit – Questionable Motive, (Read it at https://www.isemag.com in the November 2019 issue.) that my father, who was a builder, sold our house in preparation for his death, and used the proceeds to build a 3-unit apartment house that my mother could rent out and live in.
I also wrote that my mother, who at the time was a stay-at-home mom, was trained as an X-ray technician. She planned on going back to work part-time once my father passed away, then full-time when Cindy and I were old enough for school. In the meantime, she worked temporary jobs to keep her radiology skills up to date.
It was at one of those temp jobs that she came across an article in a medical journal that saved my father’s life. She read about a physician in Boston who was performing the world’s first kidney transplants. At the time of publication he was looking for volunteers. The volunteers had to be an identical twin. My father was an identical twin.
My mother called the physician and he agreed to operate on my father. My uncle agreed to give my father a kidney, and my father became the 12th person in the world to have a kidney transplant and live. He lived another 18 years — until Cindy and I were both adults.
Both of my parents died at relatively young ages. Losing them made me particularly grateful for their gift. At some of the most challenging moments of my life, my sister has been there for me. I don’t know that I could’ve coped without her. Thank you, Cindy. Thank you, Mom and Dad.