| Parallel Journeys |

A Split in the Road

I look at my face in those pictures and see my innocence: How I thought things would stay that way forever, sharing a journey with Etty, sharing our lives.

When I opened my closet the night before first grade, the scent of Downy Rose, powder-like, drifted from the shelves. Two starched shirts, two green cotton sweaters, two plaid uniform skirts, two pairs of patent leather shoes, smooth and new.

It was like a picture of our lives, my big sister Etty and I. Neatly lined up, matching, in pairs, fresh, happy, and better-together.

I had friends throughout the years and they were great, but Etty was always first. We dangled our feet off the matching trundle beds, spun identical fantasies as the late afternoon sun spilled gold across the carpet.

Etty was slender, dark hair, creamy complexion. Soft-spoken and delicate, she spun through life on feathers, swathed in pastels and grace.

Each morning, I would sing as I brushed my hair by the mirror, while Etty would groan from under the covers. Then she'd come down to breakfast with my brush and insist on redoing my pigtails, the proper way. Etty made the best coffees and invariably, I would finish hers when she slipped upstairs to get her bag.

We walked to school together in the chilly winter mornings, in the flowering warmth of late spring. We argued about most things, laughed over everything. Later, sprawled on linen flecked with grey flowers or ruffles of peach, we’d discuss school, the world’s problems, and our future lives, then stay awake for hours, reading by the light of the moon.

We came of age in the little room, nixing each other’s purchases and swapping clothing. We talked long and hard about who we wanted to marry and how odd it would be for us to live separate lives, to have a wedge between us.

They didn’t come quickly, those husbands. But while other single friends endured the shadow drape of loneliness, our days were bright and full. We worked together, traveled the world on business, shared our yearning and frustration over tea, nuts, and chocolate on late Friday nights. Sometimes, we had such wonderful discussions and laughed so much, that we’d sit on the green velvet chairs that surrounded the Shabbos table until the sun rose.

And then, it happened. Etty got married, so did I. Things were different, of course they were, but we still ambled along on the same journey, intertwined. We spoke every day, and each week congregated at Mom’s for Shalosh Seudos — blueberries and cream and banter, as the kids built Lego castles beneath the big table and behind the couch.

There were summers in the bungalow colony. I have the pictures: Tatty and Mommy, mellow and smiling on lawn chairs, surrounded with eineklach, Etty and I beaming somewhere in the background, both in light cotton dresses, both cradling babies in frilly white bonnets. Now, the photographs are lightly discolored, musty, but still I feel the summer heat on my back, smell the clumpy earth after the rain, see the glinting puddles.

I look at my face in those pictures and see my innocence: How I thought things would stay that way forever, sharing a journey with Etty, sharing our lives.

Then Etty was diagnosed with cancer. Her baby was a few months older than mine and I was the one who weaned her.

Even then, even amidst the fear, the questions, we were still together. But as the years rolled by, I watched Etty’s smiling cheeks grow gaunt, her delicate hands that were once a blur of doing and creating become frail and still. And yet, there was no doubt she would get better.

Only, she didn’t. One day we were together. The next day, in the early spring, she was buried.

I stood in a slick stone field strewn with trees, branches dusted pink and white, as I watched them take her away forever. Alone punched me in the stomach, snatched my breath away.

For many, it takes the sweeping beauty of holidays, the special moments, to bring home a loss. For me it was the everyday. How many times did I pick up the phone, fingers ready to dial the number more familiar to me than my own, only to put it back down? How many times did I take my children to the park, expecting to find her there tasting the crisp autumn air, only to find no one there. Since forever, we’d been one, and I didn’t know where me ended and where Etty began.

With the years, came introspection. Memories of two little girls giggling on the pinkish grey carpet, of teens fighting for space at the mirror, of two young mothers pushing babies in the swings; they kept washing over me and receding, strong waves and weaker ones, salty like the ocean and tears.

Eventually, I understood that we really did share the same journey. It wasn’t a sham, an illusory existence hurtling towards a cruel and abrupt end. We were both planted in This World, on the same voyage towards growth and completion. Every day, every laugh, each twinkle of love, of sympathy, of connection, was a stretch of the ride. But then our paths diverged.

It is at milestone events when I sense it most: When I watched my firstborn don manhood, smooth-cheeked and blushing, and I stood there and wondered if I was cheating, to have trundled ahead brazenly, leaving Etty behind in the dust of youth.

But I knew it then, and I know it now, when I walk my daughters to the chuppah, the textured lace of their sleeves brushing against my fingers. I think of Etty, and my heart flares a little, at the unfairness of a little sister bedecked in a beaded mother-of-bride dress, the candle flickering in the glass in my hands; the big sister forever young. But I smile at my guests and I comfort myself. Etty already passed through all the places she had to be, she lived all she needed to get to the place that is our shared destination. Etty took the shorter route.

In the end, it’s the same journey.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 537)

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