Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Happy Birthday Jeri

Life is strange; I’ll start there.

My mother passed away from lung cancer on February 17, 2007, and this past February 15, 2014, my sister passed away from the same disease. I somehow knew my sister, who had been in failing health, would go right around the same time as when my mother passed. I took a psychology course in college called “Death and Dying” and was amazed at how many terminally ill people wait until an anniversary, or birthday, or significant day has passed, or has come around again, before they, too, pass on.

It should also be noted that on February 14, 2009, my Aunt Pam also died from lung cancer, so February is not a happy month in my family, but I digress ….

My mother’s 77th birthday was last week, on the 27th, and naturally, though she isn’t here, I spent a great deal of time thinking about her because we’d celebrated that day for so long and just because the person is no longer here doesn’t mean the day doesn’t matter.

All of that leads me to today, which is my sister’s birthday, and the first one to pass since she died. I am reminded that my sister died a couple of days before the anniversary of my mom’s passing, and that their birthdays are also just a few days apart. It seems fitting, and still unbearably sad.

Still, I 'll think of good times, happy times, big sister stories. Today is about my big sister, older than me by just fifteen months. That’s not a lot of time, really, and even though we were a couple of grades apart in school, we were very close in age, but that’s about it. We were very different people; very different, even though I learned a lot from her, about myself, about my life, about life, and today, on what is, and will always be her birthday, I’m remembering all she taught me.

My big sister; my very first best friend; I loved her from the moment I was born, and I imagine she'd say she loved me from that second, too, even if I was 'the new baby.'

My big sister; we were very different. She was gregarious and out-going and had tons of friends and was always doing something. I was shy, almost petrifyingly so — my mom used to joke that I didn't start talking until I was eighteen — and I had just a handful of friends.

My big sister; she could be as stubborn as a mule, and had quite the temper, while I always tried to please, and be the nice one, and not draw attention to myself. We were as different as night and day, and as thick as thieves.

My sister has cancer, had cancer. Now she doesn't, now she's safe and free and doesn't hurt and has her hair, and might be sitting with my mother right now, talking things over, and reminiscing some. That makes me feel a little better. My big sister and I have like minds on death: there is no fear of it, though there is also no anticipation for it. There is just this sense that death is part of our journey and, naturally, a necessary step.

My big sister; she taught me all sorts of things, even though she wasn’t all that much older. But she gave me life lessons, some which took, and others which took a while.

This story is about a basketball game, and a pair of high school mascots. Our school team was the Cougars and there were a pair of Cougars who stood on the sidelines during football and basketball season, riling up the crowds, playing with the cheerleaders and generally just having fun.

One night, one of the mascots couldn't make the game, and she asked my sister to take her place. The other girl also begged off, and, well, my sister asked me. I said, 'No.’

As a young closeted gay kid, I did not draw attention to myself; I stayed in the shadows as much as I could, but when my sister asks, well, sometimes it feels like an order. And so I thought about it; I thought it might be fun to not be me for a while. So, I relented.

The costumes were big, furry, heavy, and hot, but I kept my cougar head on all night so no one knew it was me. Still, it gave me the chance to act in public like I wanted to act, and not like I thought I should. I learned that it was okay to be different, to march to a different drummer, to act the fool, to have fun for fun’s sake. To not care what people thought about you.

Again, it was a lesson that took a while to stick; there were other lessons that needed to be learned first, like accepting myself, coming out, and allowing others to accept me, too, but for those couple of hours on a Friday night in November, 19fumphity-fumphy, I was my one true self … under a fur covered head, yes, but my one true self.  I learned from my sister that it was okay to be yourself, because she knew who that fool in the cougar costume was, but she still loved him, no matter how he acted.

I've been thinking about more of those times since today should have been cake and cards and phone calls, but is now, mostly silent.

I’ve been thinking about all of the lessons my sister taught me ... and this is another one:
My sister joined the Air Force many moons ago and began moving around the world — Spain and Germany — and back again; Delaware, and I think New Mexico was in there, too. But soon enough she came back to California where the family lived and we got to see one another more often.

She was a mountain girl, living in a small town in the foothills outside Sacramento, while I lived smack dab in the middle of our Capitol City. We were quite different; she enjoyed gardening, I enjoyed nice dinners with good wine; she was garage sale, I was Macy's. She was married, I was gay.

Different. But this story isn't about that. This story is about the day she taught me what I think is the greatest lesson a person could learn: how to say I love you. See, I was good at writing those words on a card, or signing them at the bottom of a letter, but I wasn't too keen on saying them out loud for whatever reason. 

But, one day, many years ago, she called to chat — my sister loves to chat on the phone and I loathe it ... yet another difference — and we talked about all kinds of things, from what we were doing to what the world was doing. At the end of the chat, as we were saying our goodbyes, she said, All right then, I love you.

I said, Thanks. And I hung up.

Thanks? That was my response to my sister saying I love you? I mean, I guess I meant Thank you for loving me but that isn't really the correct response either, is it? So, as I tend to do, I sat there after that phone call and wondered why it was so hard for me to say those words, and I realized that I come, came, from a family that didn't really ever 'say' the words. We showed our love; we knew we were loved; I guess we all just felt we didn't have to 'say' it. 

Also, I thought, subconsciously, that I didn't deserve to be loved because I was the 'different' one; the gay son. I mean, my parents knew I was gay, and they were fine with it; they loved me. But I’ve always wondered if they ever hoped that I wasn't gay; what parent wants a gay kid? No matter how much you love them, as a parent, you realize their lives would be easier if they weren't gay. So, I felt loved, but at the same time, unworthy of being loved because I wasn't the 'son' that had been expected.

My sister, however, thankfully, thought differently. Just saying I love you so easily and simply, without force, made me realize that I was worth it.  And I thank her for that. See, after that conversation, and after my introspection, I listened to what she was saying: we all knew we were loved but she wanted us to hear it. And that made a huge difference.
I didn’t change overnight and turn into one of those people that say I love you at the drop of a hat; it took time. And, I think the first time I said it back to her I probably choked on the words a little bit, as though they were somehow foreign to me, but it got easier and more natural.

And, I think it helped push away some of the Old Bob who might have been fearful of love and being loved. I think, having my sister teach me that lesson made it all the easier for me to tell Carlos I loved him, and to hear him say it back to me, and to keep telling him and telling him and telling him.

It wasn't that my sister loved me, I always knew that, and I always will know that, it's that she made me realize I was worth it, and I could say it, and hear it and mean it and be it. That's just one of the lessons my sister taught me.

My sister, my big sister. My hero. So while today hurts, for so many reasons, I want to think back on the laughs. The time we had a party at the house while my mother and father took our little brother to an A’s game in Oakland, and how my parents never caught on; at least until we told them, years later, after the statute of limitations was up.

I want to think of my sister who was a wonderful mother, to four wonderful girls; she instilled in each of them her independence, her sense of self, her sense of worth, her joy, her love.
I want to think of my sister with her husband, Tom. It took her a while to find him, but when she did it was the best thing she ever did. No one made my sister as happy and loved and comfortable and peaceful and filled with life, as Tom.

So, I'm gonna sit for a while and think about the last time we were all together and stood still long enough for a picture. I'm going to laugh and smile, and feel loved, and feel love ...

For my sister.


anne marie in philly said...

she will be present at your wedding. a loving tribute, bob.

Susan said...

So lovely, Bob. Thank you for sharing this.

Bob Slatten said...

@anne marie
Oh, i'm sure both she and my mom will be there!

Helen Lashbrook said...

Happy birthday to your sister; it's my daughter Becca's 40th birthday on Saturday. We always celebrate with friends on her birthday so Becca will always live on in the memories of those who knew her

the dogs' mother said...

xoxoxoxoxo :-)

mrs.missalaineus said...

thinking of you. one of my younger sisters died before i met her, and sometimes my biggest regret is that i never got to be this kind of big sister to her.


Mitchell is Moving said...

Whew! This is so beautiful and so deeply felt and expressed. You brought tears to my eyes. But, sweet memories of a sister, as you know, does that to me. I am so glad she asked you to be the mascot!

Ron said...

A wonderful tribute to your sister who you loved. It was very interesting reading your experience growing up from your angle. I never had a sister, I am the oldest of three sons. Still gay though. thank you for this wonderful post.

Biki Honko said...

Lovely, heartfelt words of love for your mum and sister. It sounds like you got the sister you needed. Lucky lucky fella.

S'A said...

Why are those three little words so hard to say? Except, once you start saying them, it gets easier. Yeah for your sister, that she made it easier for you! Lovely tribute.