Just as I do first thing every morning, I checked my phone. Not good. Hours earlier in Germany, my one-year-older sister, Betsy, had finished me off with OREGANO, a 34-pointer that gave her three wins in as many games of online Scrabble. I pressed rematch and lunged hard with ZING. The next morning while I was still asleep, she parried with JINGALS.
When I moved to Somerville after seven years of living abroad, I begged Betsy, my only sibling, to join me. She agreed, leaving New Jersey to take an apartment around the corner and a social work job in Boston. For the first time in 12 years we shared a city. We also shared clothes, a friend group, and a red vacuum that we — OK, she — would trot back and forth between our apartments as needed. Best of all, we shared countless hours playing card or board games on my back porch, teasingly snipping at each other in the same way we did as kids in hundreds of cutthroat rounds of Boggle, Setback, and Scrabble.
“You must be hogging the consonants,” I’d say, frowning at a useless row of I’s and O’s on my wooden rack.
“Really? That’s what I was thinking about you,” she’d bite back, shuffling her tiles with exasperation before slaying me with a triple-word score.
For those two years in Davis Square, I let myself imagine that Betsy and I would always live close, having no idea that our lazy game-playing days would come to an end. Betsy fell in love with a German grad student, and the same month that my son was born, she moved with Robert to Munich. That was 18 years ago, and I’ve never fully reconciled myself to the ocean between us.
When Betsy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last winter, she felt achingly far away, but I managed to make three trips to Munich in seven months. On the third, we played two straight hours of Setback in the lobby of Grosshadern Hospital, trying to stay distracted as we waited for her scan results.
“These cahds are mahked!” I announced at one point, quoting one of our favorite lines from an old M&M’s commercial, in which a shady-looking poker player discovers a smear of chocolate on his cards.
Bald, sick, and scared, Betsy doubled over laughing.
In her apartment later that afternoon, I set up the Scrabble app on her phone, then watched as she lay on the couch and slowly manipulated the letters to make FLASK.
“Good start,” I said.
Although I wasn’t sure she had the stamina to keep going, the next day I played the word BANK as I sat alone at the Munich airport, devastated to be leaving her. Nine hours later when I landed at Logan, I turned on my phone and smiled to see she had made another move. Instead of imagining my sister nauseated and fearful, I pictured her hunched over her phone, plugging in letters until she decided to bottom-feed off me with BANKCARD. Rather than sending a text to say I was home, I simply played my next word: ADORE.
As Betsy endured months of chemotherapy, she was slow to get up to full-game speed, but eventually did. Eight rounds later, and with the cancer in remission, my sister — who doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body except when it comes to games — is nearly unbeatable.
“I’m supposed to be the freakin’ wordsmith,” I messaged in feigned outrage over JINGALS.
Rather than rubbing it in the way she might have done 40 years ago, she just wrote back: “I got lucky with letters.”
My husband says I’d throw someone under a bus to beat him at Scrabble. He’s right. But with Betsy, it’s different. I just want to wake up every morning and see there’s a word waiting for me, a sign that, 4,000 miles apart, the game goes on.
Sandra A. Miller lives in Arlington and teaches writing at UMass Lowell. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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