As a child, my sister Emily cried a lot. Whenever the weather turned bitter or when, through prairie grass and sagebrush, Mules-ears bloomed big and yellow, Emily got sick.
Her eyes would redden, her nose would run, she’d stop eating and sleeping and bawled while yanking on her ears. Very little helped beyond sucking on a bottle. However, a two-and-a-half-year-old with a baby bottle hanging from her mouth wasn’t acceptable to most people.
Even doctors would wag their fingers at our mother, reciting the evils of bottle feeding after a certain age, and prescribed over-the-counter cough syrup for her earaches—nothing else.
That June, I was five years old when my mom announced she and my grandma were taking the three youngest children (me, Nat, and Emily) on a road trip. My grandma arrived in her navy-blue Lincoln Town Car, as angry as ever, and my sisters and I piled into the backseat.
“This isn’t a dirty kind of car,” our grandma began, “We pick up after ourselves, and we don’t touch the windows with our sticky fingers.”
There were a lot of rules with my grandma behind the wheel. She encouraged naps, many naps, and timed potty breaks and water sips with specific highway mile markers. None of this seemed to work, not even for a minute, but my grandma didn’t give up trying to enforce it.
The trip was an eighteen-hour drive from Green River, Wyoming, to Chicago, Illinois, a straight shot along I-80 through Nebraska and Iowa, ending with the reward, a visit with a favorite aunt and uncle. It was supposed to be a great adventure. It was not. Although something great did result from it.
Between tornado warnings, Emily’s earaches (triggered by elevation rises and dips and most likely barometric pressure), was topped off with threats hurled at us in the backseat and our grandma’s severe belittling of our mother.
One night, I woke up in our hotel room to my grandma snarling over Emily, who was standing up in a child’s playpen, pulling on her ear and howling. My mom was kneeling on the bed, blocked from getting to her baby by my grandma.
“Be still,” grandma hissed at Emily. “You’re going to wake up the whole hotel, and they’re going to throw us out on the street!”
“I’ll warm up her bottle,” my mom said.
“She’s too old for a bottle!”
My bed was two dining chairs placed nose to nose and stowed in a corner next to the bathroom. Emily turned her head, and we locked eyes. I saw the fear in those sad brown eyes. I saw the defeat in my mother’s eyes, too. They needed me!
I slipped out of my bed, went to the bathroom, and ran a washcloth under the faucet until steam rose. Dripping water, I went to the playpen and maneuvered around my grandma, threatening spankings if Emily didn’t clam up. I climbed inside the pen and sat cross-legged against one of the mesh sides.
“Get out of there!” grandma growled, “You’re too big! You’re going to rip the sides!”
“Come ‘er, Emmy,” I cooed.
“I mean it!” grandma snagged my arm and tried wrenching me upwards, but the width of the pen hampered her reach, and I wiggled out of her grasp.
Moving further into the playpen, I kept my back to my grandma and motioned for Emily to sit in front of me. Then I sat pressing Em’s head against my body, placed the wet cloth against her sensitive ear, and waited for my grandma to snag my pajama top, drag me out and give me the spanking she claimed I’d been begging for the entire trip.
Soon, Emily was sucking in that particular way she did, with her middle and ring finger in her mouth and her pointer and pinky resting on either side of her nose. We sat like this until Em fell asleep, along with everyone else. We slept all night.
One could say it was my ingenuity with the hot washcloth that saved the day. However, the older I get, the more I realize that the hot cloth wasn’t the solution. I believe all Emily needed that night was support.
Emily was in pain. Our mother wasn’t allowed to get to her. My grandma had had enough of us kids. Not helping never crossed my mind, even with the threat of a possible raw bottom! After this one night, however, something changed.
I think this trip transformed the relationship between Emmy and me. We are people who support each other, with no questions asked, no addendums, or half responses given. When called, we come running. We are there for each other, always have been, and I suspect, always will. We have a deep love connection, but then, again, Emily is easy to love.
My sister has a long list of admirable traits. Besides being gorgeous, she is gracious. Em is generous with everything and anything she has. She’s creative and motivating as well as independent and savvy. She’s smart, too. I mean, really, really, intimidatingly smart! But these things aren’t connective.
What is connective is a shared experience. Sometimes these experiences are small and short. Sometimes they are long and harrowing. All times, these experiences are triumphant in one way or another, and it changes the relationship among those who take part. Emily needed someone to stand between her and danger. I was that someone for her, and she is often that someone for me.
Everybody needs someone outside their husband, wife, or romantic partner to lean on. They need a different kind of soul mate. A deeper connection, someone who can hear all the bad stuff you’re thinking (maybe even against your loved one every once in a while) and still doesn’t hold it against you. Someone who would take you to lunch or take a bullet for you. Everyone needs that kind of a soul mate.
Emily is mine.
I love you, Emmy! Thank you for your love and friendship!