I walk into my sister’s room on a Sunday morning. She’s left for work in her Redskins t-shirt and baseball cap, jeans and blue tennis shoes. I stand in the middle of her floor, wrapped in my towel, wet hair dripping while I kick through piles of clothes, trying to find something clean.
My sister has my clothes and I have hers. There’s an imaginary trail of socks, shorts and dresses between our two bedrooms, separated by a flight of stairs. I notice she’s painted on her wall. I missed this event — for surely it was an event — while I was at work the night before. It’s like we’re playing grown-up, missing things about the other because we work different shifts. She’s painted: “Nothing collapses.” Underneath her familiar scrawl are three pictures: two of us and one just of me.
I know why my sister painted those words, and why she and I are the literal representations of something that cannot collapse. First and foremost, she painted those words for inspiration. My sister is a brilliant and passionate thinker. She’s about to embark on a wonderfully difficult thesis journey and she wants her room to be her intellectual haven. So yes, I think she quoted from Whitman for inspiration, but I also think that she painted out of a necessity to make everything okay.
I haven’t written yet, to myself or to my sister or to anyone about what happened four months ago. It isn’t easy to discuss because no one talks about almost-tragedies. No one wants to exploit someone else’s pain to tell a story about her own self, her own pain. What happened to my sister is her story to tell. But the day after we spent six hours in the ER and she asked me, “What happened?” I knew she could only have her story if I gave it to her. So I did. And since then we’ve told the story together. We share the burden of her pain and in this sharing we refuse to collapse.
My sister has a jagged scar on her head. If we’re joking we call her Mary Potter. If we’re not, we’re just sitting quietly together. I could wax poetic about valuing life and time and being more careful and letting go more. But everyone knows how much I love my sister. We didn’t need an almost-tragedy to help us strengthen our relationship. My sister needed to redefine the boundaries she lived by; she needed to be more careful. I needed to stop being angry at my sister for mistakes, at myself for my anger.
And then those problems that seemed to be pulling us apart and pushing us uncomfortably close, simply evaporated. I was no longer angry. Yes, I was anxious. For two months I couldn’t eat a full meal or sleep through the night. But I was more okay than before because I knew what mattered most: my sister.
Most of my peers are worried about what their post-college lives will look like. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about what the future holds. But I’m telling the truth when I say I know what my future will look like. My sister and I will probably be living in a small apartment with a big dog. I do not know what city we’ll be in. I’m not sure if I’ll be in graduate school or if I’ll be waitressing or if I’ll be writing the next great American novel. But I can be sure Sissy and I will name our dog something akin to a family name. He’ll take turns sleeping in our beds and he’ll be very badly behaved. He’ll watch over us while we hold our fragile, just-beginning-lives together.
I think I want to write about my sister’s head because I want us to move past it. I think she feels me looking at her sometimes. I’ve watched the scar fade. Its progress hasn’t paralleled my recovery. I still see it deep and fresh. My stomach clenches and I tear up. I’m afraid to let go of that feeling; I think that feeling keeps us safe. And I know in my heart that this isn’t healthy, that our current happiness doesn’t need to exist forever in contrast to the almost-sadness.
So nothing collapses. I want my sister to look at that picture of me and know that I’m holding her up. Months ago I was holding her hand in the ER. In the next few months I’ll hold her hand through her thesis. She’ll help me through my various quarter-life crises. And my stomach will unclench. The scar will fade both on my sister’s face and in my mind. “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses.”
Connelly’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.