My sister was always presented as a gift that was created just for me – and not because I needed a bone marrow transplant or anything. I was just a typical six-year-old, newly immigrated to Queens from Russia, and I was lonely. I was also supposedly incredibly cerebral and persuasive (go figure), because while other girls convinced their parents to buy them a Barbie Dream house, I was able to persuade mine to conceive AND birth me a real, live, human sister.
My mother retells this story as if she has to justify the birth of her second daughter. She didn’t understand that in America, where we have no cap on the quantity of children you can birth (Duh, see the Duggars), you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. But as the years have progressed, so have the dramatics of the story, so that now she presents a Meryl Streep-worthy performance at imitating the 6-year-old me.
“I never thought I would have another child after that horrific Russian birth experience; how could I have risked such a thing when they basically told me I would be DEAD if I tried for another one? My heart simply COULD NOT withstand it.”
“You should have seen little Galina. She couldn’t let a stroller pass her on the street without looking into it to ogle at the baby. She would sigh deeply and then look up to the sky – as if speaking to a divine source – and say, ‘When grandma and grandpa die, you will have your brother – and daddy will have his sister, but who will I have when you and daddy die? I will be a lonely zero.’”
Technically I didn’t say “zero,” I said “noleek,” which translates to zero, but the friendly way you would say zero as if in English we could have cordial word suffixes to make the words sound less harsh. Noleek is like “little zero.” But why did I think I would be a zero rather than an isolated one?
This went on – my psychotic asking for a sibling – until one day my mother told me that she was, in fact, risking her life to give me this sibling for whom I so desperately pleaded.
The day my sister was born, a day full of ones, 1/11/81, I was finally not a one anymore. She was born in the middle of the night while I slept over at my grandmother’s house. She woke me gently, even though I was already awakened by the phone. She whispered that it was a girl and waited for me to react, but I pretended I didn’t hear her and I rolled over, faking that I was sleeping. But I remember this snippet vibrantly, like a movie clip. I remember feeling pressured to have a REALLY BIG RESPONSE; this was ALL FOR ME … and I just couldn’t muster a reaction worthy of the moment.
When they brought my sister home, she still didn’t have a name. My mother sought out my experienced American opinion for what we should name this little girl. We needed an R name. My parents, who were certain (through intuition only) that they were having a boy had settled on Robert – because what else, obviously? Richard would be Dick and they were wise enough after two years in this country that Dick would not be the most bully-friendly name. But this girl threw a complete wrench in their plans. Obviously, they failed to check out a baby name book from the library, nor did they confer with any Americans, but they felt confident that I could handle this. “Let’s give this over to the 6-year-old,” they must have thought. “She wanted this baby in the first place, let’s saddle her with the naming too.”
All I knew was that I wanted a normal American name. But between the Asian, Hispanic, Indian, and Russian immigrants that comprised my classmates at the Public School for Immigrants, I could barely conjure up a Michelle or a Jennifer (or RACHEL for that matter). My first-grade teacher was Irene Fisher and either it was her retiring year, or all teachers just seemed so old to me when I was 6, but she was like an ultimate American grandmother. So I suggested Irene.
“But that’s not an R,” was my mother’s immediate response. She paused, and as always, found a way around the rule .
“I know,”she was struck with the perfect solution, “We’ll call her Reena, but in English, it will be Irene.”
“So we still have to have a Russian name?”
“Yes – that’s where we’ll use the R. That’s where it counts.”
The irony is that Irina is actually a quintessential Russian name (pronounced Eer-a) and so my poor sister had to answer to my grandmothers’ friends calling her Eera-chka. Years later, my mother discovered the name, Renee, and realized that would have been the ultimate R name, but I hadn’t brought that to her attention and obviously it was too late. By then we had our Reena, who by high school, completely dropped that Irene to the curb like a steaming bag of dog shit, and rechristened herself, “Reena,” forever.
With the lifelong gift of the sister, I have felt an eternal binding sense of obligation to this little girl. It’s like I conjured her up, pleading to the heavens directly, for my lifelong best friend, and then eventually I had to leave our family’s not altogether comfortable nest, and her behind, barely a teenager to fend for herself. What I didn’t leave behind was my guilt; that I carry in spades in every pocket. I feel a responsibility for her … and not only to protect her from my parents when they got too drunk and nasty but from the rest of the shitheads of the world.
I’ve spent the better part of 30 years establishing a relationship hovering between a surrogate mom and a best friend – but sisters are their own category. I have to walk a tightrope with words because you I want to lose her altogether. I can’t say things, like “I conjured you up for myself, now you cannot move to Maine!” Or else, “I decided that you would be born, so now I get to decide how you should live…” I can’t even say things that friends can say to her because from me, they are golden words that always seem to come with a double-edged dagger. No, I don’t have the jurisdiction to say “That guy is a dick; you deserve so much better!” Or, “Watch out for the collective addictions of our family, because those demons want nothing more than to suck us up.”
No, I can not say any of those things. I just know I am perpetually grateful that my sister has been taking me out of the “noleek” feeling all my life and I will always be there, in the burdensome number one slot, not to catch her if she falls, but to wipe those tears when she does. Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, and the dreams that you dreamed of, once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly, and the dreams that you dreamed of, dreams really do come true.