Sister’s Keeper, vii (Bloody Knuckles)

My sister is independent. If she feels like a trip to the thrift store ten minutes before closing time, she goes. If she wants chips and salsa, she’s dining at Chevy’s as a party of one. Being a patient is hard, especially depending on others to keep track of her medicine and drive her around. It’s not easy to shift to child-like dependence.

I’ve written before about how my brain sometimes confuses my daughter and my little sister. The simple truth is I have an impulse to mother both of them. Although Amanda hasn’t said anything, I think she’s grown sick of me calling her “dear” and “darlin’,” names I call Caroline. But caregiving suits me: I like the challenge of anticipating needs and meeting them. I like that aspect of parenting, too.

In this second phase of 24-hour shifts, I feel guilty leaving Phil and Caroline, leaving my own house in a mess. Sure, they can cope without me, but they don’t think about things like wiping off countertops or trimming overgrown bushes.

The lilac bushes are driving me crazy. Every time I pull into the garage, I fixate on the dead limbs. It’s a low-priority concern in the big scheme of things, but it’s driving me batty.

One evening, I’m ready to go to my sister’s house a bit before my shift officially begins. I decide to trim the lilac bush in those few spare minutes. The dead limbs are near the ground at an awkward angle, and I struggle to get the hacksaw moving back and forth. As my right hand saws and my left hand steadies the dead branch, I watch helplessly as the blade bounces out of the groove straight across my taut knuckles. Blood immediately gushes to the surface. I drop the saw and run to the kitchen sink. As I run cold water over the cut, I deeply regret using a saw in haste.

Caroline brings me a robot-print Band-aid. Considering the stream of blood, a jumbo maxi pad might be more appropriate. I hold a paper towel on my knuckle for several minutes and stick on the robot Band-aid with strips of surgical tape to hold it in place.

When I get to Amanda’s house, she’s out of bed shuffling around in her robe, an unusual sight. She wonders aloud about the mess on her dining room table—crossword puzzles, books, old photos, Pop-tart crumbs—and I’m not really up for explaining that we have to entertain ourselves during these long sojourns.

Unfortunately, I already used up all my patience, my hand is throbbing, and she wants me to peel back the bandage so she can decide if I need stitches. This role reversal irritates me: doesn’t she know I’m the mother? But, of course, I’m not the mother. I’m the big sister, and it’d be smart to get a second opinion on my wound.

I win the first round, insisting I’d rather eat toenails than wait all night in the ER.

I lose the next round. That night, as my knuckle throbs, I toss and turn on the air mattress. After a few hours I realize: maybe this is where true empathy begins, not with the big sister ordering the little sister to drink the whole dose, lording it over her because, well, I’m the healthy one and I know best. Maybe real empathy begins here, with my left hand—my pill-crushing hand—useless because every time I grip something, dots of blood seep out of the bandage.

This minor woundedness, nowhere near the scale of hers, opens the door to understanding how it feels to want to do normal things while being thwarted by limitations.

A friend of mine who underwent the same surgery as Amanda answered my questions about her recovery, one of which was, “How long until you felt like a human again?” She knew what I was asking, which was how long it took to get back to normal. But when we’re wounded, in pain, hindered by limitations, that’s when we’re most human.

There’s nothing less human than the illusion of perfection: perfect health, perfect relationships, perfect certainty. Pain, on the other hand, now that’s perfectly human.

Maybe that’s where it begins—a genuine understanding of each other—with acknowledgement of wounds, out there in the open.

And maybe that’s how we meet each other eye to eye, as real humans, frustrated by all manner of guilt and surgery and impatience and lilac bushes.