Maybe having a sister is like this: a duplex. There are a lot of duplexes in our San Francisco neighborhood; turn-of-the-century houses divided in two to accommodate the city’s swelling population. They are usually side-by-side, standing next to each other, sharing an internal wall but possessing their own ecosystems, their own boundaries. They cannot be disconnected, but years can go by without the occupants of House A having to interact with the occupants of House B. Or they can see each other every day. They can talk about a lot of things, but in the end, what they talk about is undergirded by what they share. In the case of a duplex, they share a wall. And in the case of sisters, a past.
You don’t get to pick your neighbor, which is where having a sister differs from having a friend or a spouse. Your connection is horizontal rather than vertical, although if you are an older sister you might sometimes get this confused. You move into your half of the duplex and the neighbor is already there, and you never get to change it. And for some people, this is one of life’s hardest assignations. I have a friend who has had to cut her sister out of her life entirely, and learned only weeks after the fact that her sister had died of a drug overdose in a homeless shelter downtown Chicago. I know people without sisters who refer to their friends as their sisters. I never got to be part of a sorority, but once in, you inherit a league of new sisters. Sister wives, sisters-in-law, religious orders of sisters, the sisterhood of the traveling pants. Sister, Sister was one of our favorite TV shows growing up, about twin sisters who were separated at birth and reunited as teenagers. “Sister, sister,” went the theme song. “Never knew how much I missed her.”
We grew up side by side, sometimes facing the same direction, sometimes facing each other, sometimes walking far distances apart. Our parents will tell you, as a way of illustrating our differences, how when we went to the beach as children I tiptoed around the sand and she ate it by the fistful. When I was older, I grew convinced with every minute our parents were late getting home that they had abandoned us. It wasn’t rational, but that’s where my monkey mind took me. She patted my back and told me it would be okay. It always was.
Maybe being one half a duplex also means you are always learning things from your other half, by some kind of home osmosis. Knowledge flows in to fill a vacuum from one side to the other. She has taught me so much, which I think is a function of time and commitment. Spend enough time with anyone and you will learn things about them; if they are committed to what they know, they will teach you what is important to them. I’ve lost track of how many books we’ve lent each other, how many articles we’ve sent and opinions we’ve solicited. Anyhow, that’s where we are. Next to each other, connected, but not the same. The lights are on.