My sister and I grew up seven years apart in age, on opposite ends of the country. When I was twenty-one and setting off for California, she was fourteen, an outwardly active and confident teen, an accomplished and acclaimed tennis player. I barely knew her.
Yet we had so much in common, proving that genes win out over environment. We shared a deep love for animals; both of us, at points in our lives, preferred their company to that of their human counterparts. We both liked to read, not surprising as we come from a family of readers, but our tastes in books were similar. Later on, we each tried our hand at writing, Julie penning poetry and short stories in neat cursive strokes while I pounded out novels on my desktop. Our favorite colors were pink and black. We both experimented with various hair colors and shared an interest in unusual jewelry pieces. We laughed at the same jokes, poked fun at the same people and oddities, even sounded alike over the telephone. We found that we shared the same political beliefs, both passionate about freedom of speech and of the press, improvements in health care for disadvantaged women, and the abuse of animals used in testing. Julie worked tirelessly as a legal aid to further her causes, while I leaned toward expressing my viewpoints through the characters in my novels. From certain angles, we looked so alike that our relationship was immediately apparent.
Julie and I both shied away from crowds as we grew older, preferring the quiet peace of our separate homes, always shared with a pet or in her case, a menagerie. As young women, boyfriends came and went, but our animals were a constant. Later, we both seemed to settle into relationships in our thirties, mine resulting in marriage. Yet despite all of these similarities, it was the differences between us that changed everything and ultimately, cost my younger sister her life. For while we both exhibited traits of addictive personalities, I, so far, have been able to maintain a degree over control over my vices. Julie's, brought upon at the tender age of eleven, a fact I learned only after her death, far too late to imagine I might have made a difference, proved to be too overwhelming.
Julie developed an eating disorder while in the fifth grade, brought upon, according to her writings, by the seeming confirmation of her conviction that she was "fat" after a thoughtless remark from a school gym teacher. She hid her secret well, learning quickly that it was better to eat and purge than to avoid food in public. Before Julie was out of her teens, she had become addicted to alcohol, her only escape from the horror of keeping her terrible secret. By the time Julie's illnesses were apparent, they had taken hold and she, this young woman with so many qualities I recognized in myself, was a prisoner to both addictions.
Julie died this spring at the age of thirty-seven, of complications from her illnesses. She has been gone for five months as of this writing, but in my heart and even in my brain, I have not yet permitted myself to really come to terms with this irrefutable fact. I watch a television show and laugh at some absurd scenario, knowing that Julie too would see the humor. I clip on a necklace that she gave me, or that I bought with her in mind but finally kept for myself. I look in the mirror and sometimes see her familiar face, rolling her eyes at the cruel ironies of the world. I stroke my cat's fur and think of her grief when her beloved cat died not so long ago. I think of how I, age the age of eleven, agonized over my own rapidly developing body, fearing that I would always be "different." And I remember how, in my twenties, I drank nearly every day, living the Los Angeles lifestyle of the eighties with abandon.
So if we were so much alike, how is that I am still here and she is gone? How did I escape the dark plunge into the nightmare of an eating disorder that would come to define my life? How did my daily enjoyment of alcohol not slide into deadly abuse and addiction? How is that I am married, gainfully employed and immersed in what society acknowledges as an acceptable lifestyle?
If I had been on the receiving end of that gym teacher's unthinking words, I might well have responded as Julie did; my insecurities were in place and on the brink of turning into full blown obsessions. If a close friend in Los Angeles had not become addicted to drugs, I might never have taken a closer look at my own dangerous lifestyle. I might not be here now, to mourn my younger sister, whom I only knew in bits and pieces over the decades but recognized something of myself in her each time we met or spoke.
As time passes, I hope to remember the best of our shared traits and common interests and let go, in degrees, of the pain that tries to block out the positive memories. I will learn to be grateful that we were able to laugh together when she was healthy enough and to know that she thought of me as a friend. I will never stop wishing I had been closer to Julie, had spent more time with her, had known sooner that she was crying out for help, even if she could not accept it.
But I am proud to have been so like her in the ways that mattered and for this, I have to give credit to our shared genes. After all, we grew up in different decades, but were blessed with the same set of parents, a privilege that allowed us both to absorb from them so many of our common loves, the best of each of them. I will always miss Julie and feel her absence but am thankful for the time that we had her with us and for the far too few special moments when our paths crossed, guards were lowered and we simply enjoyed being sisters.
By Conny Bryceland