How's Your Sister?
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How's Your Sister?

 Anne Goodwin
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 Anne Goodwin
How's Your Sister?
by Anne Goodwin  FollowFollow
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Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July...read more 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for May 2017. A former clinical psychologist, she is also the author of over 60 published short stories, a book blogger and speaker on fictional therapists and on transfiction.
How's Your Sister?
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Whenever I catch up with friends, we always end up chewing over the same old topics: how our dream jobs gave way to marking time till retirement; how those gorgeous hunks we lost our hearts to matured into middle-aged bores; how our angelic children transmogrified into grunting adolescents. Once we've dealt with those old chestnuts we'll move on to analysing, depending on the season, Desperate Housewives or Celebrity Big Brother. And finally, they might ask about my sister.

So how's she doing these days?

She's doing fine.

Helluva thing to come to terms with.

She's happy enough.

What was it again?

Cancer.

What she must have gone through. Puts all our grumbles in perspective.

You could say that.

Well, pass on my regards when you see her next.

Sure.

So how's she doing these days?


"Why don't you go round?" says my mother. "You could see for yourself."

I don't exactly tell mum I won't go. I tell her about the latest reorganization at work; four middle managers having to reapply for three posts. I tell her I'm thinking of asking my GP to put me on HRT. I tell her about the endless negotiations with the builders about the loft conversion, and the dust that finds its way into the unlikeliest corners.

"You should see what your sister's had done to her place. The kitchen units are about a foot lower than normal so she can do the washing up from her wheelchair."

My husband and I had this fantasy of creating a teenage den in the loft, sealing off all the noise and hormones from the rest of the house, and what we've got is builder's dust in the salt cellar.

"You can't be too busy to drive ten miles," says my mother. "It's not like it's the other end of the country."

It's not.

"You didn't even send her a Get Well card."

I didn't.

Selfish cow, me.

She's doing fine.

Or so my mother tells me. But she's always been one to find the silver lining where Emily's concerned. "You should be pleased for her."

I search and search for a part of me that can be pleased for my sister. It should be in me somewhere. Even if it's not where I want it, like dust in the salt cellar. She's living her own life: I must be pleased.

"At least it's put an end to all that waiting. All that fighting. She's happy now."

I believe in empowerment. I believe in a woman's right to choose. Lots of us are going in for cosmetic surgery these days. Lots of us are dissatisfied with our bodies. Who wouldn't fix ourselves if we got the chance?

"I hate to say this," says my mother, "but you've always been jealous of your little sister."

Helluva thing to come to terms with.

Or maybe not. Not if it's what you've always wanted. "You know what Emily told me last week? She said, I used to feel like I was trapped in the wrong body. Now I feel complete."

Trapped in the wrong body. All her life, my sister needed to lose some of herself in order to feel whole. To be less in order to be more. She was like that exercise we had to do in English class: précis, it was called. They gave us a passage and we had to chop bits out without losing any of the meaning. Cutting through the crap. I used to quite like it.

Weren't we all like that, in a way? Didn't we compete right through grammar school, as much for the pounds lost as for the marks gained when the homework was returned? It's even worse these days, with the size zero supermodels and all the pressure on children to succeed.

So my sister was just like the rest of us. Just that bit more dramatic in her desire to be less. Just that bit more determined to achieve her goal.

"You're always saying a woman has the right to do things her own way," says my mother. "You should be proud of her."

And I am. Surely I am.

She's happy enough.

Or so my mother keeps insisting, banging on about it like she's hammering a wonky nail into a particularly stubborn wall. Persuading me? Persuading herself?

"All that stuff your dad and I pushed on her when she was little. Thinking she was enjoying it. Ballet lessons. Tap. That bike with the basket on the front we got her for Christmas. When all she wanted was to sit in a wheelchair and let her legs wither away. Remember when she fell off the shed roof and broke her leg?"

Jumped. I said it then and got slapped for it. They said I begrudged her the box of chocolates they gave her for being so brave at the hospital. Jumped, not fell. It all makes sense now.

"Now she's telling me breaking her leg was the high point of her childhood." My mother's voice quavers. "Poor little mite. She must have felt so lonely. So misunderstood."

"You just treated her normal." My voice comes out unnaturally loud. Angry.
Better calm down.

What was it again?

She told us, didn't she? Warned us. In her own way. Gave us twenty years to get used to the idea. Or block it out of our minds.

Her twenty-first birthday. Didn't want a party. Didn't want a fuss. Just her and me and mum and dad and an ordinary lunch at home. And her coming-of-age. Coming out. Sharing her ambitions for the future. Her ambitions of never having to walk or dance or a ride a bike again.

"Why?" I'd asked her. Back then, when the mere idea of it drove away our appetite for lunch. Back then, when we thought the idea was all we needed to get our heads round. When it seemed like a crazy dream that could never be realised. No doctor would perform the operation, we thought, no matter how much she said she wanted it.

Mum sat at the kitchen table, tearing crumbs off a paper napkin. "You've got lovely legs, Emily. What makes you hate them so much?"

"They're a lot better than mine." I looked down at my own thick ankles. My worst feature. "Why don't we do a swap?"

"Why don't you take me seriously?" said my sister.

"I'm trying to. I just don't understand. How can you imagine losing your legs is going to make you happy? Is it something sexual?"

Dad was warming up the bolognese sauce on the hob. Tears ran down his nose and into the pan. I'd never seen him cry before.

Why do you think you need to be an amputee? Is it something sexual?

I'll never forget the look my sister gave me. It was as if I were offering her a gift of used tampons. As if I'd just shat on her dinnerplate. As if I were the one who was going against the groove.

Cancer. That's the line the family's taking, anyway.

"What am I going to tell people?" my mother asked Emily, all these years later, when she found out it was really going to happen.

"I don't know," said my sister. "Tell them it's none of their business."

"I'll have to tell them something. I'll say it was cancer."

No, I've never heard of cancer of the legs, either, but that's not to say it doesn't exist. Or some form of cancer that means you have to have your legs chopped off above the knee and the flaps of skin sewn together across the stumps and spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair.

When my mother told me, I said, "Cancer of the brain, more like. It's a psychiatrist she needs, not a surgeon."

"She's seen a psychiatrist," said mum. "Told her there's nothing he can do for her. Anyway, he can hardly call a halt to the operation. Not now it's got to this stage."

That psychiatrist needs his head looked at, too.

What she must have gone through.

Sat up all night with her legs immersed in a bath of dry ice. Sat screaming along with the night-owl radio phone-in while the blisters and blackness spread from her toes to her thighs. Knocking back the vodka while her legs turned to stone and she couldn't have run away even if she'd wanted to. Passing in and out of consciousness. In and out of sanity. "Takes a certain kind of courage, that," says mum. "Must have been agony. And all on her own, too, poor love."

At least she didn't pressgang mum into sitting there with her. Holding her hand and whispering words of encouragement while her perfectly functional legs were slaughtered.

Once she'd survived that night the surgeon had no choice. Once the frostbite had taken over, her legs were as good as lost anyway. It was either chop them off or watch them turn to gangrene. She must have felt some kind of triumph as she hauled herself out of the bath and reached for the phone.

No more having to strap her leg up and hop around like someone playing Long John Silver in a pantomime. Like she did when she was little and made us laugh. No longer having more to her body than she believed in. No more struggling to be taken seriously as an amputee-in-waiting.

Puts all our grumbles in perspective.

You could say that. Or you could ask why my mother's scared to go to bed for the nightmares and my dad's on antidepressants. Ask why I haven't been able to bring myself to tell my kids, even if they are self-absorbed teenagers who wouldn't give a monkey's. Ask why I feel I've lost my sister, not just her legs.

Pass on my regards when you see her next.

If, when, whatever, maybe.

Selfish cow, me.

~First published by Greatest Uncommon Denominator 2009~

3 comments

Discussion

  23 months ago
Clapping for you. A standing ovation.
  2 years ago
Brilliant - and it caught me squarely by surprise...what would you tell people? And yet, and yet...
  2 years ago
This was a really interesting read. Fascinating concept, handled both honestly and unusually.
 

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