I distinctly remember standing on the front seat of our car, one arm slung over my daddy's shoulder as he drove through town. These days, this behavior could buy you a child-endangerment charge and an unpleasant visit with a court-appointed social worker, but back then it signified a deep bond between parent and child. "How about an ice cream cone, my little angel?" I recall Daddy saying, as he flashed me one of his brilliant smiles. Though money was tight, it was obvious that my happiness was all that really mattered to him.
I also have a wonderful memory of Mommy and Daddy bringing home half a dozen soon-to-be-hatched baby chicks. It seems they wanted to impart the amazing story of life to their precious darling. My parents looked on with hearts full of love for me as I clapped my little hands in excitement. Their eyes never left my face as the eggs cracked and I cheered the little yellow chickies'entrance into the world.
I could go on and on about the idyllic life I led as an only child. I could tell you about the day my mommy and I were window-shopping and saw a beautiful gray fur coat with pink collar, matching mittens, and hat in a department store window. My parents paid the better part of a week's salary for the privilege of dressing me in such luxury.
A few weeks later, Daddy brought home my first puppy, an adorable border collie I named Jeff.
Ah...life was good. Then––without warning––my days as an only child were over!
Of course, there had been some warning—my mother's protruding abdomen and unusual fashion choices, for example—but I was far too young to see these things as a prelude to another chapter of the "amazing story of life."
All I know is one day in May, my grandmother appeared and my mommy disappeared. A weird white basket on wheels appeared in my parents' bedroom. And dinner was late. I was clueless, but what three-year-old wouldn't be?
That day everything changed for me. We sat down to dinner and Grandmother prayed—not for me, but for the precious new baby girl who had been born into our family.
Then for the first time ever I learned what it was like to sit at the table without being the center of attention. In response, I swallowed a fish bone, which, in spite of Grandmother's careful inspection of my small portion of perch, lodged soundly in my throat. I only remember that things in the room looked strangely distorted, voices seemed far away, and finally, everything went black. Daddy told me later that I "passed out." Only my grandmother's quick action––she jammed her finger down my throat––saved me from certain death. I will always see that near tragedy as an omen, a crude premonition that life was about to throw me a curve.
When I saw her—my parents' new darling—I noted immediately that she was much larger than a baby chick. She also made more noise when she was awake. Most of the time, she slept in the white basket with wheels. I wasn't allowed to hold her at first. She had contracted a nasty case of impetigo, which had raced through the maternity ward like a flash fire. Though she was no longer contagious, Mommy kept her all slathered up with calamine lotion. Sometimes I would stretch up on my tippy-toes and peek over the side of the basket. Her dancing eyes would look my way, and I would think—just for a moment––that she might even be worth keeping.
I know now that I should have been nicer to my little sister. I suppose losing my seat of power and privilege did more damage to my tender psyche than anyone realized. My sister was barely in elementary school when she began to exhibit the characteristics of arachnophobia (though her terror was hardly limited to spiders). I'm afraid I also capitalized on her fear of contracting leprosy (probably the result of hearing certain Bible stories a few too many times). In my immaturity, I couldn't help but see these fears as fodder for torture and blackmail, a way to get even with the interloper.
"Scratch my back, and I'll make sure there aren't any spiders under the bed," I'd tell her. "You might want to let Mom take a look at those freaky white spots on your back," I'd warn.
A more loving, more noble older sibling might have looked with compassion upon her sister's foibles, but my black heart was not so inclined.
As adults, my sister and I have made our peace. I tell everyone she's terrific, and she seems to have found it in her heart to forgive. Perhaps she felt partially vindicated a few years back when she told my boss and a co-worker that she was proud to see I now wear shoes and underwear.