The day I saved my sister, it was my fault she needed saving. We were at the neighborhood pool and I was supposed to be watching her. Mom had a dentist appointment and she’d agreed, after much begging from me, to let us go to the pool for an hour while she was gone.
“Do not take your eyes off Jolie for one minute!” my Mom said, already second-guessing her decision. She’d gotten right in my face, fierce-eyed, trying to burn her words into my fourteen-year-old brain.
“Geez, Mom, I know. Only the baby pool, keep putting sunblock on her, make her wear her swimmies – I know all that.”
What I didn’t know was why it was my fate to be saddled with an obnoxious three-year-old on a beautiful summer day. It was the first year I’d noticed – in a new way – the boys who hung out at the pool. They’d always been there, a source of annoyance, but now it was different. I wanted them to notice me in my new red swimsuit. Maybe talk to me a little.
And that was happening. I was surrounded by a group of boys pushing and shoving each other, having burping contests, making fart sounds with their underarms, showing off – all for me. The sense of power it gave me was so heady there was no room for anything else, including Jolie.
When I heard someone scream, my head jerked around to the baby pool – which was empty – and then to the big pool and the little patch of color on the bottom. Without even thinking, I ran and dived, swooping down to gather up my little sister and bring her to the surface. I laid her on the side of the pool and began chest compressions. Don’t ask me how I knew to do it. Maybe all that television paid off. It seemed like forever, but finally Jolie coughed up a gush of water and started to cry. Then the paramedics arrived and took over.
I was a hero – the girl who saved her sister from drowning. There were cameras and reporters and the story even made the national news one evening. The mayor gave me a proclamation, I got a thousand dollars in scholarship money from an anonymous donor, and a local ice cream store gave me and Jolie free cones for a month. Social media went nuts and I was hot stuff for about three days. Then the news cycle moved on.
It changed me, that experience. It made me aware of how fragile and precious everyday life is, and how quickly it can turn sour. And it made me love my little sister in a fierce, protective way that never changed.
Jolie didn’t even remember what happened after a week or so. As the years went by and she heard the story over and over again, she grew resentful.
“Okay, okay, she saved my life,” she would say wearily.
My persistent loving gestures only annoyed her. She’d run ahead like she was embarrassed to be seen with me when I walked her home from school. She’d shake her head when I offered to paint her nails or fix her hair. It certainly wasn’t the usual kid-sister worshiping big-sister scenario. In fact, she avoided me.
“It’s like having two moms,” Jolie said. Two was clearly one too many.
As we became adults, I still hovered over my baby sister and she still resisted. I worried when she got her driver’s license. I fretted when she went off to college. I cheered when she landed her first real job. And then I watched in horror as Jolie slowly sank in a quicksand of depression.
“Let me take you to a good psychiatrist,” I begged. “Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance in your brain and it can be fixed. There are drugs that really help.”
Jolie looked at me hopelessly and shrugged. She wouldn’t talk to the doctors and she wouldn’t take the medicine. She moved back in with our parents and spent most days in bed.
I went straight to Mom’s from the doctor’s office. I wanted my mama in the way we all do when life overwhelms us.
“It’s cancer,” I said as we sat at the kitchen table and cried. “What am I going to do? I’ve got the kids and all their activities, the house, laundry, cooking…I know Brad will do his best, but he can’t boil an egg. And now there will be all that treatment – surgery, chemo, radiation and physical therapy. Just the logistics alone…”
“I’ll handle it,” said a voice from the hall. Jolie had heard every word.
She stood there in her frowsy bathrobe, hair matted on one side, face pale from all the hours indoors. The same – but different. The vacant stare was gone. She was present behind those eyes again, and she looked at me with love.
“I’ll take care of you and you’ll get well,” she said simply.
A couple of years later, when we were both fine, Jolie said the day I got my diagnosis was the second day I’d saved my sister.