Not My Sister – By Karla Lammers

I didn’t notice my sister had freckles until she was dying. The light brown spots speckled her nose and cheeks, as though someone had shaken a coke can, popped the lid and aimed a spattering of dots at a canvas. Her face, paler than a canvas, paler than the white hospital sheets pulled up to her armpits, housed features that jutted out severely due to her emaciated state. Funny, I had always thought of Carrie as thin but never sharp. Even after giving birth to three children she hadn’t relinquished her flat stomach. I didn’t have her metabolism. Since my teens, I’d constantly battled my “baby fat”-my sausage legs and soft abdomen annoyingly apparent in my riding breeches.

Carrie’s arms rested outside the sheets. Her right arm, impaired by an IV running into her wrist, occasionally twitched as she slept. I stood on tiptoe to read the labels on the IV bags, but the words didn’t mean anything to me. I paced around the room, pausing on the other side of the bed. The second finger on her left hand lay captive to a blood pressure machine that wouldn’t stop beeping. A nurse told me they only used it to monitor heart rate-they always checked blood pressure manually. I’d taken silent offense when she’d referred to my sister as “a patient.” Carrie was so much more than that. A wife. A mother. A daughter. My sister!

I collapsed onto the lone chair in the intensive care room. My mother and Carrie’s husband and children had left minutes before. Her perfect family. The oddball had remained.

Why had I stayed? I thought. Doped up on morphine, even when conscious Carrie couldn’t communicate. She’d be happier to open her eyes and see Tommy. She’d probably prefer nobody to me, but I’d stayed anyway.

Visiting hours had ended, yet my sister’s condition allowed a bending of rules. She had passed the five-year marker and had thought herself a survivor, and then last year had broken a rib. The break had led Carrie’s doctor to discover that her breast cancer from several years before had resurfaced, except this time the cancer had penetrated her skull, her ribs and her pelvis, and malignant tumors had formed around her lungs creating fluid, causing her to gasp and wheeze like a ninety-year-old woman. These tumors had reduced her life expectancy from five years to three. No cure this time.

Early that morning, a surgeon had performed an intricate procedure. If successful, the fluid would stop building. The surgery contained inherent risks-being so intense she could have died on the table and still could from complications. Like now.

Carrie couldn’t inflate her lungs by herself. The respirator performed that function. I listened to the machine’s imitation of breath. In. Out. In. Out. I watched her chest rise…and fall. My head dropped as I started to doze, and I snapped upright. The room felt like a sauna compared to the bitter weather outside. I should leave. We hadn’t been close for fifteen years, not since I’d turned ten…when she’d abandoned me.

***

A spindly child, I paced the floor of my parent’s living room as I waited for Carrie to drive up in her sky blue Toyota Tercel. I glanced at the mirror over the sofa and caught sight of my mousy brown hair. At the sound of her horn, I grabbed my backpack filled with carrots, a sweatshirt and a baseball cap and ran outside.

“Hey there, Sarah,” called my sister from her open window. I envied her long blonde hair which she had pulled into a pony tail. I hoped I would grow up to look like her.

“Hi,” I waved and smiled as I circled the front of her car to scramble into the passenger side. I enjoyed riding in her car because it smelled like hay and horses. “Did Monty get his shoe back on? Can I ride him in my lesson?” I rushed my words together.

“Yes, yes. He’s all ready for you and awaiting your arrival.”

“I hope so. I love him,” I said as I flung myself against the backrest. “I know he’s yours, but that just makes me love him more.” My sister had purchased the beautiful Arabian gelding after landing a job as a sixth grade math teacher in our hometown of Traverse City, Michigan.

Carrie reached over and ruffled the top of my pixie cut with her hand. “You’re the tops, Kid.”

Riding Monty transported me to a magical haven. The whole atmosphere at the barn and spending time with my sister made me feel special, like I belonged. I had been born fifteen years later than Carrie and had grown up noting the surprise on people’s faces at our age difference. She made me feel like it didn’t matter. I spent as much time with her as I could, and I wanted to be a teacher and own a horse just like her.

After my lesson, I struggled into my sweatshirt and pulled the baseball cap down to hide my drenched hair and went into the aisle to check on Montague. His chestnut coat glistened with sweat and Carrie had covered him with a flannel cooling blanket. As I reached under his head to fasten the chest strap, he bent his neck and nuzzled my hand for a treat. I offered a carrot I had shoved into the back of my breeches, and he crunched it into small chunks. I laughed when he breathed carrot breath into my face asking for more.

“Sarah, Allison is going to put Monty away for us tonight. I want to stop by The Mission.” Allison, another boarder at the barn, stood by my sister’s side and winked at me.

“Oh, but I like taking care of Monty!”

“I want to share something special with you tonight.”

“What is it? Are you going to let me show?” I asked as I bounced up and down on my heels.

Carrie looked strange. “That’s not it,” she said. “Let’s go, and I’ll tell you.”

We left the barn and sang songs off-key until we arrived at the restaurant.

The Mission Diner’s location on the edge of the Mission Peninsula offered a stunning view of the red, gold and orange Michigan sunsets. We often relaxed there on the weekend, but time on weeknights floated by too quickly to ride and then eat.

I had devoured my hot dog and half of a root beer float before noticing that Carrie had barely touched her meal. I had been chattering away about my lesson, but now I grew silent. We were one of three occupied tables at the diner and had chosen a booth with the sunset view, but Carrie hadn’t gazed out the window once.

Finally, she looked directly at me and spoke. “Sarah, I have something to tell you that may worry you because it’s a big change, but I want you to trust me, okay?”

“What is it?”

“Well, you like Tommy, right?”

“Sure. He’s okay for a boy.”

“Sweetie, he asked me to marry him and…I said yes!”

“Oh, I guess I’ll have to learn to share you,” I mumbled. “When will he move here?”

I saw her swallow hard. “Actually, I agreed to switch schools and move to Whitelake.”

My hot dog felt like a rock in my stomach. I shoved the float away. “I’ll never see you.” The world tilted as I thought of Carrie living over an hour an away. I was so shy, the idea of losing her and all we shared catapulted me into an abyss of fear and isolation.

“Kid! Of course you will! It’s too far to commute during the week, but I’ll come up every weekend and take you to see Monty.”

“But it won’t be the same, will it, Carrie?”

“No, not exactly. But I love Tommy and want to start a life with him. That doesn’t mean I’ll love you any less. We won’t see each other as much, but we’ll still be great friends.”

“Okay.” I longed to trust her, but I knew. And I was right.

Over the next six months, our visits dwindled. Then, after they’d been married two months, Carrie became pregnant with Blake…quit teaching…and sold Monty.

I begged my parents to buy him, but they couldn’t afford it. Dad worked at the local paper mill and mom stayed at home. Still, I refused to stop riding.

The day after Monty left my life, I stifled my shyness and approached Samantha. I didn’t know her well, but I knew she rode. “Sam, would you take me to your barn with you sometime?

“Sure, but it’s a jumper barn. Your sister’s horse doesn’t jump, right?”

“Doesn’t matter. She sold him. And she moved away.” I looked down and kicked the ground. “We don’t see each other anymore.”

“Oh. That stinks,” Sam said. “My mom’s taking me to a lesson this afternoon. I’ll ask her if we can stop by and pick you up.”

“Thanks!” A ray of hope brightened the darkness that had descended on me the night before, when I’d watched Monty board a trailer to be taken away from me forever.

***

The incessant beeping of the blood pressure machine jolted me back to my present reality, where I found Carrie staring at me intently. I sat up straighter in the chair. A nurse I hadn’t seen before bustled into the room, fiddled with some switches, gave me a soft smile and left.

“Hi,” I said.

She motioned for pen and paper, and I handed them to her. “Time?” she wrote-her movements impeded by the various tubes.

I glanced at my watch. “It’s late. Nine o’clock. I’m not supposed to be here-it’s after visiting hours. Tommy took the kids home. He needed a break. I guess I lost track of time.” Nervously, I rambled.

More slow, awkward writing and then she handed me the note pad. “Thx Sarah. Sorry u have to c me like this & 4 being so much trouble.”

My eyes welled with tears. I loved Carrie more than I hated her. Even though she’d deserted me, she didn’t deserve to die. Especially of cancer. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “You’ve never been any trouble. I’m the troublemaker.”

She stared at me, trying to convey some emotion through her expression that I was too dense to comprehend. At that moment, I noticed her eyes had lost some of the emerald green color that we shared. They had taken on a glassy, almost transparent shine-similar to my dad’s a couple of months before he’d died. The realization that she wouldn’t exist much longer struck me full force. I wanted to curl into a ball and let someone wrap strong arms around me. But there wasn’t anyone-I had pushed everyone away. I fled from the room. From those eyes.

I stretched out over three chairs in the waiting area. I started to doze off when Carrie’s nurse laid a blanket over me. “Thanks,” I murmured.

Again, she just smiled and softly moved away.

My thoughts drifted back to my tenth year.

***

Sam’s barn, Jumper Hill, introduced me to the high society of equestrian competition. Barn employees swept the aisle hourly, dragged the ring daily, polished the cherry wood stalls and rotated the horses for turnout so that each animal spent hours grazing on lush, rolling hills of green grass. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but Jumper Hill carried the label of an “A” barn. Expensive, well-bred thoroughbreds lived there and were shown at the highest rated shows across the nation. I certainly didn’t consider Monty a slouch, but even at ten I sensed the difference in caliber.

I watched one jumping lesson and became hooked. Afterward, Sam let me ride her horse for a few minutes. The mare trotted lightly, as though her feet were wary about touching the footing, and her canter had a similar airy quality. The lightness surprised me. Thoroughbreds are such muscular horses-I had anticipated feeling the ground more. Yearning to tap the mare’s energy and smiling for the first time in months, I rose in a half-seat, something I had seen Samantha do in her lesson, and felt the mare extend her stride. I was amazed at her sensitivity to my weight, and her responsiveness to the slightest pressure on the reins.

“You have a nice seat in the saddle,” the instructor remarked. “Would you like to take a lesson some time?”

My heart leapt at the thought but reality intruded. “I’d love to, but my parents can’t afford it.”

“We’re looking for someone to do some of the odd jobs around here. Grooming, feeding, things of that sort. It would pay enough to cover two lessons a week and give you a bit of spending money to boot. If you’re interested, we’ll give you a try.”

And so, my obsession with horses continued. The emotional connection to the thoroughbreds differed from the relationship that I’d had with Monty; these animals were pure athlete to me. It was an unfair judgment as they had plenty of personality. Still I remained detached and unable to bond with a single horse. Or person, for that matter.

I skipped college since it hadn’t provided Carrie with a life I coveted. Instead, I became a catch rider at the “A” shows-I’d hop on horses I’d never ridden before when the owners were having trouble or their rider turned up sick. I could ride any breed, though I confess I preferred the light step of the thoroughbreds to the heavier tread of the warmbloods.

After a season of successful competitions, I developed a coveted reputation. Owners of hundred thousand dollar horses asked me to show their mounts. I approached every jump with fearless determination, and I landed in the ribbons. Riding provided a needed release. During those precious minutes on a course I couldn’t be distracted by other thoughts, as distractions could result in me and the horse plowing into a large, wooden jump.

Each Grand Prix event presented my greatest challenge and provided me with an enormous adrenaline rush. Riders and horses braved potential disaster as they traversed five foot tall, brightly colored vertical jumps, some with three foot spreads, laid out in a grueling, twisting course. I would take my time in the first round and ensure I jumped clean. Sometimes one of my mounts would tap a rail and it would bounce in its cup…but stay put. I couldn’t pause to check but would listen to the announcer at the end of the round to hear if we had any penalty points. A clean round carried us to the jump-off-where my strategy became absolute aggressiveness. I would engage in risks other riders avoided-taking a sharper turn or leaving out a stride to cutoff seconds. It paid off. Success found me.

But happiness evaded me. Carrie often called, and I made a point of being unavailable. I purposely left my parents’ house if I knew she would be visiting. I didn’t need to see her or her brood. As soon as I gained my financial independence, I moved to my own place and let her talk to my answering machine. I meant to be rude; I wouldn’t forgive her for deserting me and Monty.

The summer I turned nineteen, Jumper Hill hosted an “A” show. Maude Gillepsie asked me to ride her horse “Mystic” in the Grand Prix. None of that surprised me in the slightest. Mystic, a stunning bay gelding, soared over the fences but needed a steady, confident hand on the reins. What did jolt me as I walked around viewing the fences before the class was seeing my sister in the stands with Tommy, Blake, Alex and Jenna. I ignored their waves and concentrated on the jumping course. My pay didn’t cover socializing, and I had no interest in participating in their family outing.

Mystic sailed through the first half of the course. I felt his hind legs bunch up with power as he pushed to clear the water jump. I heard a splash. No! I thought. A fallen rail. My fault-I’d checked him too hard instead of trusting his instincts. He knew how much power he needed to clear the jump. “I’m sorry, Mystic,” I whispered. We wouldn’t be in the jump-off. We finished the remainder of the course without errors, and I dismounted outside of the ring to hand Mystic to his groom. I approached Maude cautiously, fearing she would be angry, but she thanked me for giving her horse a beautiful ride-said she’d catch up with me later.

My sister strolled forward with Jenna in her arms; Tommy followed with the boys. How did Carrie stay so slim? I felt like a moose in comparison. “Nice ride!” Carrie chirped.

“What are you doing here?” I asked in a snide tone as I removed my helmet, allowing my hair to fall free.

“I wouldn’t miss a chance to see you show!” Her brow crinkled in the start of a frown. Or maybe she was only squinting from the bright sun?

“You blew my concentration.” It felt good to blame her, even though I knew it wasn’t true.

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” she said. She paused a moment to study me, then reached out and touched my hair. “I like it blonde.”

I felt my cheeks grow warm from the heat of a blush and jerked away from her hand. I had tried to copy her hair-at least how it had looked when I’d considered her my best friend. Her style had changed. Her locks now brushed her shoulders, while I’d let my fake golden mane grow to my hips. “Thanks,” I muttered. “I’ve got to get ready for my next ride.

“Oh. All right, then. If the kids don’t get fussy, we’ll see you afterwards.”

“Sure,” I lied again. I didn’t have another ride. I hustled to my car and left.

***

My brother-in-law gently shook me awake. He held a Starbuck’s coffee in his hand. I sat up and accepted the proffered cup. A skim, latte with no foam slid past my lips.

“How did you know?” I asked. I tilted my stiff neck first to one side, then the other.

“Carrie.”

“Huh? Carrie knows what coffee I like?”

Tommy looked at me with a sad smile. “She’s read everything there is in print about you.”

“Oh,” I said, clenching my jaw to hide a surge of emotion. Why would she do that? “How is she?”

“Doing great. The doctor removed the respirator, and she’s using less morphine.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “I guess I should get home and shower. I didn’t mean to sleep here all night.”

“Why don’t you pop in and see her? She’s asking for you.”

“She is? Why?”

“Because she loves you,” he said as he put a hand on my shoulder.

***

I hesitated outside of the hospital room as I strained to listen for sounds of a respirator. I could hear beeps but no fake breathing. Still, my legs felt wooden, weighed down by my own trepidation. The image of Carrie’s dying eyes remained at the forefront of my thoughts. I forced myself to move inside.

“Hi, Kid,” she said to me. Her voice had a husky quality I didn’t recognize.

“You haven’t called me that in a long time,” I said as I sank into the visitor’s chair. The warmth from the coffee cup spread through my hands and soothed me.

“I’m sorry. I know you don’t like it much. It slipped out.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“Tommy told me you were here all night.”

“Yeah, I fell asleep in the waiting room.”

“I’m worried about you,” Carrie said.

“You’re in the hospital, and you’re worried about me?”

“You ran out of here so fast. What happened?”

“Oh, nothing.” I examined the grout in the floor tile to shield my eyes from her penetrating gaze. I couldn’t say that death waited on her doorstep as I didn’t want her to stop fighting.

“You may think I don’t know you anymore, but in some ways you haven’t changed.” She started coughing and motioned to the water pitcher.

I poured water into a clear, plastic glass and slipped in a straw. I handed it to her and waited while she drank half of it. “Done?” I asked.

“Better. Thanks.”

I sat back down. I started fidgeting with the scarf around my neck. The feel of the silky material sliding through my fingers distracted me, and for a moment I thought of glistening snow and sunshine instead of beeping machines and antiseptic.

“That’s pretty. I like it.” She touched the blue bandana she wore to cover her bald head and laughed softly. “Where can I find one?”

“Don’t know. It’s from this guy I was dating at Christmas.”

“Thoughtful guy. He must have cared about you,” she said.

“Oh, he lasted the longest so far. Five months. Not even as long as one of your pregnancies,” I joked.

“I wish you would meet someone who could appreciate how special you are.”

“You’re joking right?” I looked away. Then back. My escape instinct pummeled me, but I managed to remain in the chair. I bit my lower lip to keep it from trembling.

“No, I’m not joking. What’s wrong?”

“If I am so ‘special,’” I spit back, “then why did you leave me so easily?”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, Kid, I didn’t ‘leave you.’ I’ve been trying to stay connected! And Jenna? She worships you! She’s intent on jumping just like her Aunt Sarah!”

“She doesn’t even know me. And you? Connected? You’re the one who destroyed everything! You moved away. You sold Monty. You walked away from me. Why would I trust anyone ever again?” I sat on my hands to prevent them from fidgeting and to anchor me to the seat.

“You’re blaming your love life on me?” she asked. Agitated, she’d have yelled if able. “I tried to participate in your life. I didn’t walk away from you-you shut me out!” Steady tears streamed down her face as she gasped for breath.

I felt horrible. This talk should have happened years ago, and I’d waited until she lay trapped in a hospital bed, tubes everywhere, struggling for breath. I sprang from the chair. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please calm down,” I begged, clasping my hands together. “I’m an idiot.”

Tommy walked in the room with Blake and they didn’t observe my tears, but they’d spotted Carrie’s.

“What’s going on here?” Tommy demanded.

“I’m sorry!” I cried and ran from the room, allowing my need for escape to buy my freedom. I heard my sister call my name, but I didn’t turn back.

***

After locating my blue Toyota Tercel in the parking lot, I floored the gas. I quickly placed some distance between me and the hospital. Odd, I thought. I had bought a car like hers, dyed my hair like hers and done anything else I could to emulate the sister I’d banned from my life. I had never accepted the path she had chosen for herself. Instead, I’d tried to punish her for that choice. I’d wanted her to suffer for her desertion, but had she truly abandoned me?

As images of Carrie’s efforts to reach out flashed through my mind, a sick feeling hit my stomach and my foot eased on the accelerator. I’d been the one acting selfishly…not her. I had allowed my childish viewpoint and ongoing stubbornness to drive a wedge between us.

Sobs racked my body, and I pulled to the side of the country road. Years of pent up anger, feelings of betrayal and emotional frustration leaked from my being. I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a single soul to contain so much angst.

When I had spent the last tear, I straightened my back. I had allowed the immature view of my inner child to hold my sister at a distance for fifteen years. Enough! I would go home, shower and bring my most proud Grand Champion ribbon back to her. It wouldn’t erase the past, but I hoped it would forge a renewed bond.

***

When I returned to the hospital, I checked the waiting area first. This time I noticed the bright pastel colors in the afternoon sun and the murmur of competing televisions. A stark contrast from the patient rooms with their white walls, white sheets and white bodies. I walked the length of the room and checked the refreshment area in back but didn’t see anyone from my family. My family. Yes! I silently vowed to treat them better.

I took the elevator up to my sister’s room. The bed had been changed and the room cleaned-apparently awaiting a new occupant. Wonderful! She must have been moved out of intensive care. I located the nurse’s station and found the smiley nurse from the night before.

I knew Carrie had died before she spoke. Her smile had changed to an expression of compassion.

“When?” I asked.

“An hour ago.”

“I went home to shower. It’s only an hour away.” I slumped against the wall. I should have gone back when Carrie had called out to me. “What happened?”

I heard her voice but only absorbed a few words. “Drop in pressure…septic shock…organs failed…”

But the machines? The hourly check? “Thank you,” I said. Still clutching the ribbon, I turned to leave and noticed the nurse’s eyes followed me. Did she know what a horrendous sister I’d been? I tossed the ribbon in the trash. Now it couldn’t serve as anything more than a reminder of my tardiness in understanding and accepting Carrie.

***

I drove to my sister’s home, a modest split-level in a neighborhood filled with backyard swing sets and barking dogs. I found it easily even though I’d only visited a few times. As I’d expected, all of the cars were out front. It seemed awkward to knock, so I checked the handle. It turned.

My eyes settled first on Tommy. I feared I’d be greeted with anger and hatred, but he moved forward and wrapped me in his arms. Words spilled from me, “I’m sorry! I loved her! I wanted to tell her that…and so much else.”

“It’s all right, Sarah,” he said. “She knew.” He took my hand and guided me into the family room away from everyone else. “She asked me to give you this memory book before she went in the hospital if she…if she didn’t make it out.” He handed me a worn leather scrapbook.

I opened it gingerly and recognized every newspaper and magazine article about me from the last decade. There were photos from the local shows, taken with a careful eye. “How did she get these pictures? She didn’t come to these shows.”

“Oh, but she did,” he laughed through his tears. “She would wear sunglasses and a big floppy hat. She dressed different too. She wanted to see you, but she didn’t want you to feel nervous because she was watching.”

I looked up at him. “I’m sorry,” I said again. “I’ve been a fool.”

“She didn’t think so. In many ways, she thought of you as her first daughter…and you could do no wrong.”

Shocked, I struggled to absorb that information. My throat choked shut with emotion.

“Come on. Let’s join the others,” he said. Draping an arm over my shoulder, he walked me into the living room, where my mother gave me a teary smile and my nephews and niece stared at me with moist eyes.

Young and shy, Jenna approached me cautiously. “Aunt Sarah, my mom said you’d teach me how to ride?”

“Did she?” I smiled. “I’d like that. I really would.” I moved away from Tommy and gently embraced Jenna.

I hadn’t spent my last tear after all.

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Karla Lammers works as a corporate lawyer and has written several academic articles. Since turning her pen toward literary fiction, some of her short stories have appeared in online publications. She is a contributing blogger at www.worldswellwritten.com and lives in the Midwest with her husband, daughter, labrador and beta fish.

3 Comments
  1. Reply
    Bill
    September 2, 2009 at 11:51 am

    This is a wonderful, poignant story, packed with life lessons. Great writing.

  2. Reply
    john yamrus
    September 3, 2009 at 8:56 am

    Karla;
    you had me from the first sentence. most writers would start out “joe took the glasses down from the shelf on a crisp, white, wintery day. no, you started out with “I didn’t notice my sister had freckles until she was dying.” that’s a great beginning. it almost rivals the first sentence of Charles Bukowski’s novel POST OFFICE , where he wrote: “It began as a mistake.”
    good job.
    jy

  3. Reply
    Karla
    September 3, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Thank you for the comments. This story was inspired by my sister’s own battle with cancer. She had that same surgery and survived for almost a year afterwards. She was 10 years older than me and instilled in me a love of horses. That first sentence popped into my head one night, and the rest of the story unfolded from there.

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