Thursday, August 23, 2012

Learning from your little sister

In a few days my baby sister, Abby, leaves for Penn State.

She's sweet, adorable, loving, patient (mostly), and tries her best to bring people together in peace, but also makes sure not to ignore the important facts while doing so. I will never let her believe she's done growing, but I will always be immensely proud of who she's become. Not only because she's grown up, but because in many ways she's learned to be a grown up faster than any of us.
She has a skill set that pairs humility with courage that I can only wish I'd developed before heading into college.

What make's Abby's story remarkable is that she learned it all the hard way. In her first eight years of life, I remember loving my sister, though not always being fond of her. In the hoity-toity opinion of her older brothers, she was ridiculously spoiled.
We buried our parents in accusations of robust gratuity. They treated her like a princess. Ask and she shall receive.
The symbol of Abby's spoiling, we believed, was an ever-enlarging vein in her neck. Sure, you see the baby pictures of the last Michael now and she looks like an absolute darling. Those that have never seen will never know.

I'm not sure anyone ever captured a picture of the wrath. Deny Abby a pleasantry that she believed was her God-given right and a change came about her. Her eyebrows fell into the bridge of her nose, her lip snarled and her entire upper body turned rigid as a noise unwriteable would climb from her throat. An angry, constipated growl escaped through her open teeth, one that echoed the imagined pain of betrayal and the anger of her brothers' resentment. At times, she'd even stand on her toes, clenching her lower leg muscles to get her entire body into it.
Naturally, the reaction of her three older brothers was to laugh, mimic, then laugh again — like the buttheaded brother of Kevin McCallister.
That's when the unholy incarnation showed itself — a vein the thickness of her pinky finger, filled with blood and rage, spawned from the left side of her neck.
I really can't say if my parents spoiled her out of love or fear. The thing was terrifying to look at and we had a real concern for what it may mean for her future. Would any husband take her knowing what one selfish act could reveal? Would she even be able to have friends? How many necklaces and scarves would she break?
Andy, Zach and I put together an office-pool style wager, selecting days of the month on which she'd finally rupture an artery and be sent to the hospital for a stroke. Not that we were hoping for it. It just seemed inevitable.

One summer during this stage of Abby's life, we were headed to the western side of the state where my brother was competing in a Little League baseball tournament. These types of trips were mostly forgettable, except when they forged family moments, a la Little Miss Sunshine.
We'd spent the morning making our parents miserable as they drove. With four active, but very different minds clinging to any thought that might diversify ourselves from the group, it only took one inspired jab in a game of Pediddle to turn four hours of silence into a nightmare of name calling and fisticuffs.
Two hours into the trip we weren't even close to using up our energy. However we'd shredded our parents last nerve, resulting in a forced game of Quaker's Meeting. To begin the contest, my mother would sigh loudly, then recite a silly rhyme at a volume contradictory to the purpose of the game.
"Quaker's meeting has begun. No more laughing, no more fun, no more chewing bubble gum. Crack a smile, walk a mile. Quakers meeting has begun."
With that, we were banished to competitive solitude.
Minutes later, my mother's wittiness to turn our competitive nature against us came to perfect karmic fruition as the Suburban hit a bump in the road and my father's tennis bag, filled with all our rackets and a dozen cans of tennis balls, fell from the top of the car.
In the back seat, my brother Andy and I noticed immediately, and our eyes met for a brief moment. He, being the more cut throat of the two of us, looked at me with expectation, waiting for me to forfeit the game by alerting my parents. I quietly giggled at the irony of our forced silence in a moment of turmoil.
Concerned for our rackets, I finally informed my father, who slammed on the breaks then pulled off to the side of the road, quickly emerging from the car to try to salvage the bag before any damage came to it.
Andy and I always hated the back seat simply because it was furthest from the front. That day we excitedly adjusted in our seats, finally able to utilize the rare front-row view. We smirked as my father's movement evolved: first walking casually, then very quickly, then jogging as car after car swerved to miss the bag.
Eight or nine vehicles easily spotted the lonely sack within six car lengths and were able to adjust to the other lane, but one particularly inspired tractor trailer had no interest in playing any variation of Samaritan. Surely having plowed countless animals in his past, an inanimate, lifeless object was not about to force him to shift into the left lane, even with plenty of room to maneuver.
My dad couldn't have been more than 15 steps away from the still untouched bag when the big rig turned battering ram. In one moment of gorgeous chaos, the bag split open. As it did, the tennis balls, which were still in pressurized canisters, shot forth with great velocity in all directions. Our bag had become a junkyard firework display.
Crowding the back window, Andy and I took in the full glory of this momentary bliss, blocking off our family's view.
In an instant where we were unsure of how to react, we simultaneously agreed upon overwhelming joy. "OHHHHHHHHHHH!" we shouted, throwing our hands up in the air, probably punching the ceiling of the vehicle.
I'm sure it never happened, but I picture my brother and I smiling while hugging and slapping each other on the back, similar to the way a group of caricatured 1940's business men would celebrate a new deal.
Our mother sat in the front seat confused, still trying to see out the back window. "What happened. What HAPPENED!?" she squawked.
Abby, who always demanded to sit in the seat immediately behind my father, was also unable to see. But through our mean-spirited cackles, she'd quickly come to realize all was not well with the family tennis bag.
The brother closest to Abby's age, Zach, was the only one of us near a door who was not pinned in by high-speed traffic. He heroically hopped out of the Suburban and ran down the road to help my father collect the rackets and scattered tennis balls that could be salvaged, then to assist in cleaning up the shattered aftermath.
On their return to the car, Andy and I quickly realized we'd better flush our faces quickly. The blood in our bodies had rushed to our heads as we seized in laughter, turning our faces bright pink; our smiles stood broad and defiant of our own will. My father would not be amused.
Biting our lower lips with our cheeks puffed out, we hung our heads as we realized just how lousy we were at cloaking our emotions.
My father, who's stern jaw was as immediate a giveaway as Abby's bulging neck, could not have been more rapt in his ire for the driver. Unable to put his frustration into words, he instead decided to clamp shut — his head could not have been more vertically compact if it were wedged in a vice grip.
My sister had moved to the side of the car where Zach had been sitting, but realizing the carnage that was to return, moved back to her seat with a look of concern on her face.
"My racket survived!" Zach exclaimed as he jumped back into the car. Andy and I looked up, finally having a real reason to smile.
My sister's face still showed distress as she locked eyes with my dad, who stood outside Zach's passenger door.
"D-d-dad? Is m-m-my racket okay?" she asked, through quivering lips and heavy eyes ready to burst with tears. Even knowing the potential for what was about to come, I couldn't help but appreciate such an  adorable moment.
Still unable to stop chewing his own molars, my father never lost eye-contact with my sister as he answered her question without saying a word.
Quickly and with little remorse, he reached into the bag for the handle of a shattered piece of fiberglass. With a flick of his wrist he yanked the racket, now smashed into the shape of a crooked-L with its strings frayed everywhere, out of the bag. Its relatively brand-new red paint was scratched and jagged with chunks of pavement still embedded in the molding.
I'd like to say if I'd heard my sister begin crying before my brothers and I started cackling, I might not have laughed. But even as I type these words, I'm overcome with knee-slapping fits at my father's unintentional comedic genius.

Mark Twain once said, "Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven." In the place in my mind where humor and sorrow meet, I still can't help but remember this as a defining day of my family's humanity.

I don't really remember where this story fell in the timeline of Abby's transformation. It could have been the beginning, but it was more likely the middle, and it certainly wasn't the end.
She heard us crow and cackle. She saw the tears streaming down our smiling faces as hers filled with tears of temporary agony. But she also heard our apologies within the laughter.

In that moment where we could see nothing but the humor, it would have been very easy for her to see nothing but the embarrassment. And maybe she did for a time. But my sister learned grace from those moments of chaos. She (sometimes begrudgingly) learned to see that our joy wasn't malicious, it was just a reaction in the spirit of fun. Our own way of making good out of a bad situation.
Unspoken apologies are the ones most people take a lifetime to understand and accept. Abby's first came when she was no more than eight.

I left for Penn State later that year at the age of 18, and somewhere between the ages of 19 and 20, I returned to find this absolutely wonderful, reformed not-yet teenage girl. Somewhere, through all of our brutality (and sadly, yes, there was much more fun at her expense) she'd learned humility but still kept the confidence of the rage monster she'd once been. To this day, that still inspires me.
My parents have confidence that Abby will make the right choices in college, but are also scared because their youngest child and only daughter is about to leave the nest. I suppose it's the politically correct thing for a brother to be filled with anxiety as I look at the new world that will surround her as well, but to say I'm nervous would be a lie.
Abby's proved to be mature beyond her age in a lot of ways. In just one example this year, she took a reserve role on her softball team without a complaint. Seeing the greater picture of her team's success, she was unable to stay angry at what some in our family perceived as a lack of opportunity.
She's still a little girl in other ways, and I'll never allow any amount of praise thrown at her to take away her innocence as she learns how to fail, then how to rebuild herself. That's the fun part of growing up. No one should be robbed of it.
What I know most is that my sister has a huge heart. Big enough to forgive a older brothers' cruelty, big enough to adopt a stray cat she found in the woods, and big enough to care about the people she loves enough to tell them the truth when they need to hear it. I also know she'll ask for advice when she needs it. For that reason, I can't be afraid to see her go to college. She's earned our faith.