I talked to my sister in England today. Being British, my family doesn’t do much in what my daughter Lizzy calls the “Ushy-Gushy” line. I think this year was the first time I ever told my sister I loved her--must be the recent naturalization ceremony I’m suffering from! Anyway, now I’ve said it, I can’t seem to stop.
I love my sister.
Just under two weeks ago, at the grand old age of 42, Rebecca suffered three strokes. Strokes, I have discovered, are not like sicknesses or diseases but more like car wrecks or bombings. Rebecca was hit in her language center as well as in her face and arm.
It’s wonderful to hear her speaking again. Her tone is modulated and tentative, like someone using a hard-won second language in place of her own. Some of the words are simply not there when she reaches for them. She picks her way through her vocabulary like someone stepping carefully in bare feet around broken glass. Here and there, the sharp edges catch, and the words fall away. It seems that communicating is sometimes like trying to bite into a hard green apple when half of your teeth have been knocked out of your head. The analogies between what my sister is doing and what my ESOL students do every day are startling.
Let me tell you a bit about my sister. She is wild and brave and irreverent. When I was 13, she would plaster me in make-up, stick my feet in high heels, and drag me down the nightclubs of Huddersfield for a taste of “life.” Should a bouncer question me, I was instructed to speak only in Dutch. Since all I could do in Dutch back then was swear up a storm (Rebecca having taught me well), it was a good job there were no linguists on site. At 15, after years of playing hookey, she announced she would not be returning to school unless they taught her something worth knowing. Convinced that would never happen, she vanished into London, then Holland, then South Africa for a time. Somewhere along the way, she picked up her legendary cooking skills, credentials to teach the Alexander Technique, a temporary husband, and her beautiful son Adam.
Today, my mother has called the carpenter in to my sister’s house to move shelves and put in banisters. I should mention this is the house Rebecca built herself, and I don’t mean she hired a contractor. She put on a hard hat and worked on that building site for two long years, she and the local cooperative.
My sister has fought many demons in her life, and though she has not always won the battles, she has never stopped fighting for long. Why should stroke be any different? Having convinced the hospital to discharge her early, she’s on a mission. Seven times a day, my sister picks up a book with her good arm and reads a paragraph. When she first began, the words made no sense to her, but little by little, she says, the mists are clearing. Her next goals are mastery of the computer and the cell phone which have temporarily become a mystery.
Life has done some incredibly mean things to Rebecca, and it can’t be denied she’s done life a few mean things in return, but the two hobble on together, despite their frequent differences, in grumpy communion and sometimes even in cahoots. Recently, I asked a class to write about the person who inspired them. The examples I gave from my own life were people like Nelson Mandela and Thich Nhat Hanh. I never thought to mention my sister, so I’m mentioning her today.