My Sister and I
By Jan McKenzie
“Mama was shaking real bad last night,” my sister Mundy said. “I know because I was holding her hand.”
I looked at her, my eyebrows drawing together as I thought back to our evening. I knew Mundy was concerned with my mother’s declining health. We all were. It’s hard to watch someone you love in a long struggle with something you know they cannot beat, short of a miracle. Parkinson’s was the diagnosis the doctors had given us a few years ago and we had watched the ups and downs of mom’s battle–getting on medication, getting the dosage right, adjusting it continually as time and the effects of the disease marched on. Despite all the help of modern medicine, mother’s good days were fewer and her off days were increasing. I think as much as anything her battle was against the force of lethargy, a kind of physical and mental gravity that slowed my mother’s movements and mind. Half the battle is just staying in the battle and when you can’t find the energy to get out of your chair, it’s hard to pick up your sword and fight.
The news to me in all this wasn’t that mom had been shaking but that Mundy felt her shaking last night. My sister had been on one side of my mother while I was on the other. Like bookends keeping a priceless edition standing, we held her between us. We went down the long hallway to the elevator and then out to the car, having optimistically left her walker in her room. We encouraged her to bring her cane instead. Mundy held on to the side of mom that was free, while I put my hand loosely on her back so as not to impede the arm using the cane.
That was the difference then. There wasn’t any shaking on mom’s left side where I stood. The arm with the cane moved slowly but steadily, forward, back, forward, with each foot obediently following behind. Where my arm rested on her back, I felt her labored progress but no shaking.
I was tempted to ask my sister if she’d been mistaken, to tell her that all was well on the left side. Could she have misinterpreted what was going on with the right? That was ridiculous of course. I walked with my mother enough days to know her symptoms well. It was just that our experience that evening had been so different, all because of our placement no more than a foot away from each other on opposite sides of our mother.
Funny, isn’t it? I realized our whole lives had been a little like that, maybe even more so with our father than with our mother. I was the second in a family of four children, born when my father was young enough and still strong enough to both love and bully us. Mundy was the last of the four children, born when my mother was forty. By then my father’s asthma had grown to a gale force in both his life and ours, taking all his effort and breath during the days and his peace at night. When I was young, he was able to pour both his will and deep love into forming the vessel that became my life. When Mundy was young he had little will left to pour so Mundy received his simple adoration on his good days. On his bad days his effect on her was nominal, as my mother had learned to ignore him rather than try to please him and she taught my sister to do the same. I had no such defense from his great ambition and the criticism he thought would motivate me to greatness. I did not need any defense from his warm father’s love.
While I have often thought of what his struggles left me, I didn’t understand until I was much older what it cost him to love me so. I was oblivious to what happened to his body when he climbed on a horse and rode side by side with me on the ragged trail behind the public stable. He never mentioned the allergies triggered by these rides or the ensuing spike in his war with asthma once we dismounted. Even the simple evenings when I sought a midnight refuge from my fears in my parents’ bed were hard on him. I never considered that on those mornings when I saw him bending his arm, a hand resting on the small of his back, he was massaging away the pain left after a night sleeping with a small child nestled in the crook of his back. I guess he knew somehow that sleeping near him was the only way I could defeat the dream monsters that haunted my sleep. With dad I was safe from the monsters in the closet and in my dreams, but I was not safe from the power of his wishes for my life.
Mundy was safe from both once my mother taught her to stop listening during the hurtful times, at least for that period in her life. It would take her years to listen to any unpleasant thing, even the warning bells meant to direct her away from the ragged edges of life toward safety. She had learned to still almost all alarms, both gentle and sharp in order to drown out my father’s anger and pain. What she did hear from him was love, but it was an aging love sometimes given from the distance of exhaustion.
So there we were— Mundy on one side of dad with me on the other; me on one side of mom, Mundy on the other. We were children who were loved and molded on opposite sides of our parents’ lives. Eventually I would discover that my life was fuller when my sister and I lashed together the puzzle pieces of our understanding and shared what we learned on the sides we were given. My perception was not reality, as many claim, but only one part of reality, incomplete on its own, in need of another’s experience.
Even the sum of these fragments, which we pieced together like broken glass, formed a somewhat uneven picture of our parents. We experienced more as we grew and those later experiences would leave their imprint as well.
In my early twenties, while living in Florida and learning about God, I began to write to my father. I missed much of God in my early church life, living within the lines of religious rules and only occasionally experiencing the God they supposedly represented. I stopped believing altogether somewhere along the way. Then, unexpectedly, the God I had missed in childhood reached into my heart, causing it to breathe in new rhythms with the joy of His spirit. This changed the direction of my young adult life and I shared those experiences with my father.
He must have thought about it before responding because he waited a while to write back. When he did I was surprised to learn that a priest in the confessional spoke to him in similar terms as I, offering him the opportunity to “accept Christ in his heart.” In the church life of my childhood, this was not the normal conversation of cathedral penances.
To my surprise he responded to this invitation, accepting the One whom he sought in his private heart for years. Dad found a real and personal dialogue with a God who influenced him in life but who, until that time, he had not allowed to hold him. I remembered this after he died when I found the letters I had written to him in his dresser drawer. Mom said he had saved every one.
Mundy and I carry different parts of him; she his blue eyes, I his prominent chin, she his love of teaching, I his desire for justice. We also carry his weaknesses—both physical and emotional—but they seem to have given way in part to the strength he imparted. Both of us have his soft heart and his keen mind and when I look at my sister I see a legacy of beauty and imperfection, of strength and struggle. In our generation we have found sooner than my parents the Love that changes all. It has helped us to find the best of our father in us.
Thank you, daddy. Thank you, mom.
We will hold you up as long as we can and hopefully offer back to you some of what you have given us.