I am starting to get Facebook notifications in advance of my birthday. Yes, I put my real birthday on the personal information page. I also put my complete address and my phone number, but that was before my son graciously intervened, saying: For God’s sake, remove that info immediately. He explained how nefarious types could toy with my data, incarcerated felons might look at my house in Google Earth, for what reason I don’t know. I removed everything except my birthday. I like how the home page floods with birthday greetings from friends and followers.
But this year, every time I log in to Facebook I am reminded that this marks the first time in all my 56 years that I will not hear my sister’s voice on my birthday.
I don’t really care about my birthday. I like getting cards and gifts, of course. And Facebook messages. My sister did not do Facebook. She called. Sometimes she called to chastise me: “I am calling to tell you that I am not talking to you. Ever again. You told Mom that I have a cold. She is calling me every 15 minutes to ask how I am.” Often, she called me to thank me for taking such good care of our mother as my father died slowly, slowly.
We had a normal sister relationship which means we exasperated each other and loved each other. We fought, we disagreed, we helped each other. We promised a lot of things.
When we were younger, I used to call my sister when I was contemplating radical change. “Let’s talk about the beautification of Lisa Kaplan,” I’d say, using my unmarried name. No matter what she was doing, she’d blurt out the same response: “Don’t do it!” She’d coached me through some very ill conceived upgrades including a swath of green hair long before bright hair color was popular, and a third ear piercing expertly botched by a friend who punctured my lobe with a safety pin sterilized in off-brand gin.
We got older. I had kids. She did not. When I got sick, she drove six hours to my house to take over. After the birth of my second son, I had pneumonia so my sister arrived as my replacement. She entertained my two year old and babied the newborn. She made dinner for my husband and berated me for the disheveled condition of my kitchen cabinets. “How can you function in that kitchen?” she’d sit on my bed and challenge my system of un-order. “Your refrigerator is totally disorganized. Your spices are all over the place. I’ll bet you didn’t know you have three jars of cumin?” I placated her with our shared phrase of affection. “Fuck off,” which made us both laugh.
During that visit, she got a stomach flu, and we quarantined ourselves on different floors of the house. When she’d recovered a little bit, she stood in my bedroom doorway holding a tray. Her face was shades of grey. “I brought soup,” she said. “I’ll try not to throw up on you, if you promise not to cough on me.”
She pissed me off. She was stubborn, she argued. She was infuriating. “You’re killing me here,” I moaned to her. “That’s the goal,” she’d say.
We talked without talking. I knew what her silence said, and she knew mine.
When our father died, she was emotionally wobbly. She was full of guilt and dread and other things that, I suppose, I don’t even know about. We talked daily, mostly about our mother whom I’d started to rate as hurricanes. “She’s a category three today.” Which meant, bad, but don’t fly down. Category four was the worst. “Promise me,” I demanded of her. “Promise me you won’t leave me.”
She soothed me with her older sister voice and swore: “I promise.”
Last year, on my wedding anniversary, we talked for a long time. She always remembered to call on our anniversary. I put the phone on speaker because I was busy fixing my face before going out to dinner. She yammered on, talking about her garden and her car trouble and her intentions. She always had a lot of intentions. Next year, we are moving to Florida. Next winter, we are building a second bathroom. She said she was going to harvest her blueberries and would send me a jar of blueberry jam. “It will turn your teeth blue,” she said.
“Just what I need,” I replied. “Blue teeth.”
“It might be an improvement!” She joked.
After we’d hung up the phone, she left me. She left us. She left.
I don’t know how to have a birthday without her. I am holding my breath to find out if I survive. Her absence is always present, but this week it billows like weighty storm clouds. That’s where she is, I think. In the cloud.
My birthday will be jam packed with activity. My husband is taking me on a sailing trip and we have oodles of tasks to tackle, which means I will no time to think. I will be busy provisioning and planning and plotting. In the back of my head though, I will always be listening for the phone to ring.