Friday, 8 August 2008


I have a sister who is 5 years older than me, and I love her very much.

Sis has a hard life. She was born with a physical disability called cerebral palsy which affects her speech, walking and balance, and she can’t use her right arm. On top of this the gods decided to give her too many teeth for her jaw so that for most of my childhood my sister wore orthodontics and a head brace, and she’s been blind as a mole for as long as I remember too. Plus Sis inherited Dad’s dark, thick and unruly hair, which would probably be ok if she had two hands to manage it, but instead she’s forced to keep it very short!

Her handicap is all physical – Sis passed year 12 at school just fine, went on to college, and has been working and supporting herself since her early twenties. She can’t manage money or men and has a blistering temper, but I know plenty of able bodied people I can say that about!

Sis suffers from depression. For many years now she has been on various medications to try to help, which generally means I have to time any phone calls for first thing in the morning or else it’s like talking to a zombie! I think she has a new therapist because she has been writing down the things that bother her, and exploring incidents in her past that trouble her. Maybe this will help, maybe not.

Sis has always been there. She protected me when I was too little to protect myself, and I protected her once I was big enough to attack anyone who pushed her over. I remember us dancing around drip-catching bowls in the long corridor of our house during a rainstorm singing “Jelly tots and Hottentots!” We would sneak into the Navy archives and play hide and seek in the filing stacks. We’d take turns whizzing about on the tricycle and we’d bob around in armbands in the pool. It never occurred to me that Sis was “different”, she was just Sis and she was fun to be with. My parents always emphasized that Sis was “special” - of course she is special, she’s my sister! Like, duh.

I was occasionally very jealous of my sister. She would go into hospital from time to time and my parents would take her grapes and comic books, which we never had at home. I would disappear under the bed with the comics and try to gobble the grapes when no one was looking! She’d have casts on her legs and Mom would draw Disney characters all over them – I wanted a cast to decorate too! Then again, Sis was the “special” one and I was the blah ordinary one, so it made sense that she got all the goodies. Isn’t it weird how a child’s mind works?

I can remember us fighting quite a lot once Sis would have been hitting puberty. Wrestling, biting and hair-pulling mostly! The physical tussling pretty much stopped once Sis grew boobs though, because I discovered that a swift punch to one of those things would stop her and she only had one hand for defence! After that the fighting became verbal, with us screeching insults at each other and slamming doors. I don’t think we were different to any other sisters in that way – doesn’t everyone row with their sibling from time to time? Sis now feels guilty about things she used to call me and is convinced I have a fat complex because she called me “fatty”. I think I used to call her “booby”. I was fat and she had boobs… fair enough.

One of my jobs in the morning before school was to help Sis dress (she can dress herself, it just takes a long time). I confess I’d take a bit of revenge for the name calling by being rather rough as I stuffed her into her uniform! If she abused me too much I’d walk off leaving her half dressed until she apologised. We definitely had some good times too – I can remember us listening to music together and taping the top 40 off the radio chart show. That dates me a bit doesn’t it?! Sis had her own record player and we’d listen to ABBA and The Pet Shop Boys at full blast. We didn’t do much else together though – 5 years is a big age gap when you’re 12.

If I was having the occasional shouting match with Sis that was nothing compared to what my parents went through. The rowing was constant and horrible, punctuated by the door to Sis’ room slamming. I can’t remember what the rows were about, but I assume it was normal teenager stuff. It was a relief when Sis went off to college and then the rows were only every other weekend when she came home.

Sis started working while living at home. By this time I was a teenager myself and wrapped up in my own social life and studies, so we didn’t hang out much and to be honest those years are a blur. When I was 18 my parents and I moved to Cape Town where my folks divorced, and Sis stayed behind in an apartment owned by Dad.

That was nearly 20 years ago.

Sis fell in with a rough crowd and I remember she had this boyfriend with no front teeth who scared me so much I slept with a can of pepper spray under my pillow when I visited. Sis tried to commit suicide because of him and shortly thereafter got evicted from her apartment block because of the company she was keeping. (I’m also pretty sure he’s the one who later raped her and sold all her possessions and was the reason she changed her name so that he wouldn’t find her when he got out of prison.)

Sis got herself transferred to Cape Town and has stayed in various dubious lodgings around the place ever since. Mom and I tried to help her budget and plan and repay her debts, and occasionally Dad would step in to dig her out of the bigger holes. She’s had a succession of nasty cheating diseased boyfriends who take her money and leave her feeling bad. I left for England when I was 27 and never came back, and Mom followed a few years later and also never came back. We do what we can long distance but it isn’t much. Dad’s fed up with the whole situation although he still picks up the pieces when he absolutely has to. My parents still try to “change” my sister, and Sis still has screaming rows with my parents.

Sis has a lot of rage and I don’t really understand. I could probably understand a bit of frustration but at over 40 she should have accepted the hand she was dealt. If she was nicer to be with then maybe she wouldn’t be lonely – I have seen her drive away truly amazing people who honestly wanted to help out and be her friend – people much nicer than I will ever be. If Sis wasn’t lonely maybe she wouldn’t take up with such horrible men.

But these are “shoulds” and “maybes”. Life doesn’t work like that as much as my parents tie themselves in knots trying to make it happen and as much as I miss the fun protective sister I had when I was small. Sis is hard to be with. She will never manage money. She will always attract horrible men. I love her and she will always be my sister and I accept her the way that she is: “Special”… always has been and always will be - like, duh!


Suzanne said...

I understand the conflict of having a relative you want to love and keep away. Kudos to you for letting love win...

caitlin said...

huh i an not that difficult. i donder you!