One of my greatest sources of pride growing up was being the little sister. I was the baby, with two brothers – 3 ½ and 6 years older. With that kind of age difference, I quickly learned to defend myself. Family vacations were always spotted with the occasional battle in the backseat of the car. They usually started because I would sit in the middle, and the boys would proceed to make Kim Sandwiches as we’d round each corner. Sometimes our dad would play into it by taking the occasional corner particularly hard, just for giggles. This would escalate into full-blown brawls where J would stick his finger in my ribs repeatedly and I would retaliate by biting, scratching and spitting. Mike always managed to stay out of those fights, clever boy.
Not only did I learn how to fight; I also learned how to play up the cute factor. My brothers’ friends always had time for me. When J’s friend, Greg, broke his arm, he came straight to our house from the hospital. At 6, the biggest thrill of my life was to be the very first person to sign his cast. I had a crush on Greg for years after that. When I was in 4th grade, Mike’s friend, Alan, used to come up to me in the hallways at school just to “steal my nose”. Being a little sister had its advantages, see, because I wasn’t just a little sister to J and Mike; I was everyone’s little sister. I felt like the safest girl in school.
I was also the luckiest girl in school. My brothers were quick, cool, and so handsome. And as we got older, everyone was always amazed to see how well we got along. In middle school, I was the only girl whose older brother would actually stop her in the hallway for a hug. My friends would snicker and whisper as Mike gave me a bear hug and lifted me off the ground, and I would grin from ear to ear, knowing that deep down inside, they were just jealous. When I got my period at age 12, it wasn’t my mother who sat down and held my hand and talked me through it. Instead, it was J who, after pacing the room, saying “I… I don’t really know what to do… I have never been here before”, escorted me to mom’s bathroom to find “the stuff” I needed. We laughed about that one for years. When I was a little older, I chose to go to college in New York because Mike was a couple of hours away in Rochester. And I later chose to do my graduate work at a small university in Watford, England over Columbia University’s Teachers College so that I’d be only an hour away from J.
At some point, things began to change, as they do. Mike and J got married, and so did I. We had our jobs, spouses, and eventually babies, and life began to pull us in different directions. With Mike having settled in the States, and J and I living in London and Madrid, respectively, getting together was increasingly difficult. Our family reunions were limited to twice a year – once over the summer when we’d all pile into our parents’ home for a week in August, and then during Thanksgiving when J and family would come to Madrid. Mike eventually pulled out of the family scene – as he got older, the relationship between him and our dad deteriorated to the point of no return. We had no choice but to accept that. In September 2007, tragedy struck. J was diagnosed with a highly aggressive bladder cancer. He had surgery in February of the next year – they removed his bladder and gave him what they called a neobladder – a reconstructed bladder made from a portion of his intestine. While they were working on him, though, they found that the cancer had spread and was unstoppable. In May, he was given 6 to 12 months to live. He died only 4 months later, at the age of 42.
At 37, I have spent the last year and a half trying to teach myself how to be an only child. With J gone, and Mike out of the picture now for almost 5 years, I have had to figure out my place in the world. I am learning, slowly, though, that I will never be an only child. My life, my experiences, my interests, my beliefs, my memories… so many of these are the result of my place in my family. My love and admiration for my big brothers – whether they are here are not – will always be steadfast. And no matter how old I get, I will always be what they made me: a little sister.