My sister Genevi comes to live with me this week, driving two thousand miles of North American highway with my dad, a trailer full of East Indian wares and, most importantly, my bicycle. In honor of this and for love of my sister, I am posting excerpts of an essay I wrote several years ago...
Genevi is my little sister. Or, she was my little sister; now she’s 5’ 11’’ and goes by Gen because no one knows how to pronounce or spell Genevi. She used to be smaller than me, but she’s always had bigger opinions. She cried when she was five because she didn’t like Mom’s new brown shoes. Then there was the jean skirt period, when she refused to wear anything but jean skirts, even outside playing in the desert dirt. She recently reminded me that she also wore jellies. So, in jean skirts and jellies, she took to the great outdoors of the Southwest on her bike, up and down the chronically potholed road to our house.
I mostly remember trying to make Genevi be the little sister that we wanted, someone who needed us and did whatever we said. She loved the name Sarah and whenever we played anything, that’s what she wanted to be called. But we knew that, and so demanded that she not be called Sarah, but a name that she hated: Alice. “If you aren’t Alice,” we said, “you can’t play with us.” Genevi, tortured by the ultimatum, usually ended up in tears.
It wasn’t until I had to move back home as an adult, that my relationship with my littlest sister began to look like a friendship. She was a teenager then, with a life and friends, but she still wanted to talk to me, to be with me, creating an opportunity I didn’t deserve. And I discovered, though separated by eight years, we were standing on common ground.
I was explaining one day how I felt my disabilities were closing in on me, that they were keeping me from being who I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to do; and then, when I thought I might get some real pity, Genevi looked at me and said she felt the same way. She had trouble reading. She told me how this inability to accomplish something that so many of us take for granted made so much of her life difficult. She got nervous in classes when everyone took turns to read, and was always having to think of excuses for getting skipped over. Street signs went by too fast to decipher; comprehending written directions akin to remembering names in a Russian novel. Above all, she didn’t want to look stupid, and remained on alert for an ambush at every turn.
I jumped in big sister style to tell her all the things I felt a ‘seasoned’ handicapped person knows, like that you have to learn to not be afraid to tell other people the truth about who you are, that everyone has things to hide, that your disability can be an advantage...but in the middle my eloquent dismissal, I stopped, and for the first time, I was really seeing how hard it is to do that. What would it be like to have so much trouble doing something that comes so easily to most? How much would that have affected my life, to walk into a classroom afraid every day that I couldn’t keep up with my peers? How would I have dealt?
And so Genevi became my ‘little big sister.’ We joke about being a walking freak show, me a mere 5’3’’ with my one arm, and she nearly six feet with the kind of body that makes men stop on the street to ask if she has a boyfriend.
“I think my boobs are my biggest disability,” Genevi tells me, laying across my bed in a usual interruption of whatever I was doing. I smile because it sounds funny and also true. She wears a triple D bra, which she often points out, but still means very little to me except I know she can never find any that fit except next to the girdles in the grandma section. She said she found a website that sells bras for women “whose cup runneth over.” We both laugh. What used to be a rare moment is increasingly more common with us, laughing about our various disabilities.
A while ago, Genevi wanted a breast reduction surgery, so my parents agreed to the possibility if she first lost some weight. She signed up with a weight loss program that cost a lot of money and got no results. She changed her diet, weighed her food on a little scales in the kitchen, ate only ten nuts at a sitting, and went to the gym religiously. But nothing happened. Weeks passed, months, and she would just gain or lose a pound here and there. She’s finally off the plan. She’s lost more weight just being happy and living life and she’s not talking about breast reductions anymore. She’s even started showing a little more cleavage, much to Mom’s chagrin. The girls are coming out of hiding and so is Genevi’s insecurity.
“They’re just so much a part of who I am,” she says.