FOOTSTEPS

FOOTSTEPS

From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Footsteps

My sisters knew I loved them, but I was very closemouthed about it. I didn’t say it enough, because it was hard for me. But let me tell you, if you have sisters still living, you’d better hug them. You’ll regret it if they go and you didn’t get a chance to express that feeling. And they’d probably have been waiting for it. I know my sisters were waiting for me.

Patti LaBelle
of her three sisters

My family lived in one of those old Florida houses that was raised up on stilts so the water does not rush into the house during high tide. You could hear the footsteps of anyone walking around the house because there was nothing beneath the floor, and you learned to recognize the walker by the sound of his or her footsteps. It was not until I reached adulthood that I realized I never heard the sound of my sister’s footsteps.

My sister and I shared a father (ours), a mother (mine) and a younger full brother. We did not grow up in an idyllic household. Our father was an active alcoholic until the day he died five years ago, and my mother took out a lot of her rage against my father on his daughter, my sister. There were times when I put myself in front of Mom during one of her rages to deflect some of her anger, but I always got shoved aside. So my sister learned to be quiet, to not be a bother, to stay out of the way. She learned how to walk without making any noise.

She left home early, at age sixteen. I remember coming home from school that day and immediately sensing something was wrong. When I checked our bedroom, her clothes were gone. An empty space was on the dresser where before had been her perfume bottles, her hair barrettes, her Bible. She had moved out with no warning, no celebration, no good-bye.

We lost touch after that as we both moved into adulthood. Occasionally there were the awkward phone calls or luncheons that left us feeling further apart rather than closer together. Our differences were acute, worn like badges around our necks. These differences had been emphasized so much in childhood—I was our parents’ full child, she only a half. She was always made to feel less than whole because of that, a burden and a shame to the family. She was forced to carry the weight of our parents’ feelings of inadequacy. Now something that neither of us had control over controlled us.

She moved to South Florida, got married and had children. I moved in the opposite direction, to Atlanta, got married and later divorced. We did not see or speak to each other for months at a time, yet the sticky past I was forced to confront in therapy kept bumping me into the feeling that I had lost something important when I lost my sister. I also realized with tremendous sadness that I had not really lost her because I had never found her to begin with. We had grown up in the same house together, but we were total strangers.

Last summer, at age thirty-seven, I decided to step through the past and reach out to her. I made a phone call—I was coming to Florida on a business trip, did she want to get together? Our voices arched over the hundreds of miles bridged by a telephone line—the tension was audible. We had not seen each other in almost ten years.

Finally she said yes, her voice high with nervousness. We made plans to meet at the airport. She would bring the children. I had met her oldest when he was an infant. Two more had followed who were only names on birth announcements to me.

I got off a plane in Tampa two months later, my stomach knotted with anticipation. Looking around, I discovered that my sister was not at the gate. I checked with a flight attendant to make sure the gate number had not been changed. No, she assured me, it had not. I was at the correct place. I sat on a cement planter and waited. Had she forgotten? Had she decided not to come after all?

Suddenly, a familiar face bobbed through the wall of people who were moving toward baggage claim. The face belonged to my sister, and right behind her, the small round eyes of a child peeked shyly from behind her. Her face looked exactly the same as I remembered, and when she saw me, she smiled. It was a smile I rarely saw in childhood.

My heart broke with relief and something else I could not name as I watched her approach, fast and anxious. She was sorry she was late, she said. She got caught in traffic. We hugged an awkward hug. I wanted to throw myself at her, squeeze her and scream that I was sorry for how my mother treated her when we were kids. But something inside me held back, afraid to show too much emotion.

As we waited at baggage claim for my luggage, I thought about all she had been through in her life and how far she had come. The realization that the simple act of forgiveness can give a person the strength to put the past aside and build their life anew lit me up inside. She was nervous and I was, too. But suddenly it did not matter. What did matter was that we had finally connected. We both stepped out on to that shaky limb and were holding on for dear life. At her home, we grilled shrimp, and I got to know her children. We talked about our parents as if they were just two people we both happened to know. Her husband, whom I had met only once before, treated me like family. And that’s what we were for that one night, a real family.

We have not been able to see each other since that time. Responsibilities and obligations in different states tend to interfere. But the connection has been made, and it will never again be severed. The bond of sisterhood persevered. It is a bond that is stronger than the damage done to it by our father’s alcoholism or our mother’s rage. It is a bond that was formed and sealed when, as little girls, we lay side by side in our beds, listening to the fighting going on outside our bedroom door, each of us secretly praying for the night to end. I remember one time we saw the light from under the door reflected in the window pane above the bed. My sister said it was the staff of God, and it meant he was protecting us. And protect us he did, but with more vision and compassion than either of us could have realized at the time. And as my sister walked through her Florida home that night preparing our dinner, I sat back and listened for the first time to the sound of her footsteps.

Kelly L. Stone

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