She was small enough to fit in your pocket. Blonde hair. Big eyes. Button nose. On the day she was born, I was a child—still wearing cowboy hats and cap guns.
My mother handed her to me and said, “This is your sister. Be careful with her.”
I had never seen anything so pretty.
A few years later, we were at my aunt’s house. A big barbecue. I was eight, eating dangerous amounts of pulled pork.
I remember my father, standing near the grill. My mother was beside him. I was supposed to be watching the girl, but pulled pork has bewitching powers over my delicate mind.
There was a pool at the neighbor’s house. The girl wandered off to look at it, but I was too busy smearing pork all over my face to notice.
By pure chance, I spotted her from across the yard. But I was one moment too late.
She was staring downward into the pool. She fell in. Nobody saw it happen but me.
I dropped my paper plate. I ran so hard my legs burned and my lungs hurt. I jumped in. She had already sunk by the time I reached her.
I placed her tiny body on the grass. She coughed up mouthfuls of water. The adults came running. Lots of hollering.
The girl looked at me with weary eyes. “Let’s do that again!” she said.
When she turned five, our world turned sour.
The night after my father’s funeral visitation I was still wearing my Sunday best. She wore a black dress with lace collar.
A crowd was in our den, eating funeral food, saying things to each other like, “He was a good man.”
She was outside, knees against her chest. Numb. I sat beside her.
We spent the rest of the night, sitting in a walk-in closet, playing Candyland by flashlight. I slept on the floor beside her bed for ten years.
On her sweet sixteenth birthday, she was long hair, and tall. Same button nose, same kiddish face, trapped in an adult shell.
She worked at Chick-fil-A with my mother. I visited them at work one day. We ate together in the dining room.
My mother and I sang “Happy Birthday.” The folks nearby thought we’d lost our minds.
I gave her a set of Nissan keys.
“What’re these?” the girl asked.
“She burns a little oil,” I said. “But she’s all yours now, and she’ll take care of you if you take care of her.”
She hugged me. I was a two-hundred-foot tall and Kevlar.
Her wedding was a courthouse affair. I arrived in the parking lot during my lunch break. There was a lump in my chest.
“Who gives this woman away?” the man with the Bible asked.
The world got quiet. It was an odd word, “woman.” I couldn’t seem to get a response from my throat. She had always been a girl to me.
She was the girl who sang “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” during long car rides. She was a button nose and sun-bleached summer hair.
She was swim team practices, youth group trips, late night ice cream.
She was the photograph in the hallway we showed to company. She was proof that pretty things come from ugly childhoods.
She is the joy of my mother, the glory of my father. A mother of two.
And she makes me so proud it hurts.
Happy birthday, Sarah.