I always wanted a sister or a brother or both or somebody.
I never liked being an only child.
My mother used to tell me that I was enough. But I knew I wasn’t. Her sister had six kids. She had just me. She wanted babies and I wanted siblings. There were times we both thought we would get our dream. But it didn’t happen.
I had Rosemary and I told myself, this is the same. She and I did everything together. From third grade through sixth, we were inseparable. We saw each other at school. We played together after school. We slept over at each other’s houses. We went to the movies, the library, Whitey’s Bakery, Rexall Drug. We climbed Bunker Hill Monument together. We sang “Tammy” at Symphony Hall. We talked every day on the phone. We told each other everything.
I thought it would always be this way. Together forever. We were “blood brothers,” our fingers touching and mingling a pinprick of blood on a hot summer day. This invisible bond would connect us always. Wasn’t this the same as real brothers?
But real brothers and sisters are connected by visible things: parents and grandparents and cousins and constant proximity. Holidays. Birthdays. Weddings. Barbecues. Vacations. Funerals.
Friends are connected mostly by circumstance. Our circumstances were we lived close by, we went to the same school, we liked the same books, the same songs, the same movie stars, and the same boys. I liked her silky straight hair, which her mother curled with a curling iron every morning, and she liked my wiry hair that her mother said looked like a doll’s.
I believed a best friend was better than a sister. I knew Rosemary liked me more than she liked her sister Janet, who was older and looked in the mirror a hundred times a day, as if she expected someone different to look back.
Rosemary and I made fun of Janet, how it took her so long to get dressed. How she was constantly combing her hair. Rose and I? We were two peas in a pod, walking and talking and riding our bikes, neither of us in a hurry to grow up.
But we did. We grew up and apart.
Rosemary and Janet grew closer. Not close the way we were. Not inseparable. But attached in a way that neither time nor geography could sever.
Last month, two of my good friends buried a sister. First Jill’s sister Judy died. Then Caryn’s sister Cheryl died. Both deaths were unexpected. Jill raced from work. Caryn flew from South Carolina. The families gathered. They hugged and they wept and they laughed and they remembered.
This is what you lose when you lose a sibling. Someone who remembers with you and someone who remembers you as you were. Someone who can fill in the blanks.
And this is what you lose when you never had a sibling, too. A witness.
I watch my grown children when they get together. I listen to them talk and laugh. They share memories. They share a history. I watch my grandchildren, Megan and Luke, Charlotte and Adam, bicker and embrace and pout and play, but always, already, taking care of each other, there for each other.
It’s inestimable, living in the same house together, sitting at the same table, watching the same TV shows, playing the same games, hearing the same stories, not for just a few days but every day, year after year after year.
This is what siblings share.
And then one day they don’t. They grow up. They leave home. They create their own homes. Some even grow apart.
But they always have what they had. Their shared childhoods and their shared memories. Death doesn’t change this. Nothing ever can.