Monday, September 30, 2013

Third Parent

The first couple days of a ski trip I took with my family to Lake Tahoe when I was 11 in 1985 were horrendous. A blizzard overtook us when we were trying to enjoy the slopes, and it was two degrees below zero at the top of the mountain. Being a prepubescent kid, I did not take kindly to the cold or the lack of visibility. I was used to skiing in the local mountains where it was sunny, and I could hold both my poles in one hand and snow plow with ease. I was fearless because I had so little space between the top of my head and the ground: not far to fall. I learned to ski when I was 7, and by the end of the day, I was zipping around like a pro.

Not in Tahoe. I cried, bitched, and moaned because my fingers were frozen. I got so angry that I threw my new white gloves down the slopes, and my mom had to carefully retrieve them as the snow whizzed past our faces. My mom was so mad at me for throwing my gloves that she said to me, while still on the mountain, “We are never taking you skiing again.” I didn’t believe her. She wasn’t kidding. They never took me skiing again. Instead I took up snowboarding in my 20s. But not before I found myself hovered over a hibachi at the lodge thawing my frozen fingers after the last run down the mountain as a skier.

The last day of our trip, we woke up in our second story condo to the sun streaming through the window. The temperature had warmed to the 20s, and the fresh post-blizzard powder was billowy and dense, ready for skiers to leave it flying in their wake. It was the perfect day to ski.

But there was a catch. My 10-month-old sister. For the rest of the trip, we’d put her in daycare while we tried to tackle the miserable mountain. But she had gotten sick. We found her sitting in the middle of the daycare floor, children and adults swirling around her oblivious to her condition. She could barely sit up and sat staring listlessly into space. She’d had a fever. We were heartbroken that we’d left her there.

So on the last day, when we didn’t plan to ski anymore, and my baby sister was sick, I offered to take care of her so my parents could have one good day on the slopes. It was a ski day I’d been waiting for all week, but I felt bad for upsetting my parents and didn’t want their whole trip ruined. They decided to do a half-day so they wouldn’t be gone long. At my insistence, they left us in the condo. I was a responsible, mature 11-year-old most of the time, and this day in particular. I remember spending the morning sitting on the ugly, old couch holding my sister, petting her warm forehead, watching her sleep, and feeding her bottles to keep her hydrated. I barely moved until my parents got back. I wanted my parents to be proud of me, and I wanted to nurture my sister and make her feel better.

It was the beginning of being a willing third parent. Because we were more than a decade apart in age, I took on this role, not because I was forced to, but because I wanted to. While I sometimes, for the first couple years, was angry that my parents didn’t belong solely to me anymore, I loved my sister in a motherly way as much as any young sibling could. My parents had a wonderful ski day, and my sister was well taken care of.

After that, I often took care of her. We joked that I was a “built-in babysitter.” I didn’t feel obligated or tied down by it. I did it gladly. My parents were even able to take a couple trips for days at a time when I was in my late teens, early 20s because I could stay with her. It was a perfect arrangement.

When she got older, starting when she was in middle school, I started to see her as more of an equal, more my best friend than someone I mothered. In fact, I had forgotten about how maternal I felt toward her until she had her own child nearly a year ago. When she became a mother, a flood of feelings came back to me. I suddenly wanted to protect and nurture her again. I felt like a failure for not having had a child first so I could blaze the trail and report back to her with advice.

Her son is a little mini version of my sweet sister, and it’s overwhelming how much I love him. It scares me. I never want anything bad to happen to him. I think the way I feel about my nephew is how I would have felt about my sister had I been older when she was born. How can someone so tiny and so new cause me to feel so vulnerable and consumed by selflessness? I would do anything for either of them, and can’t imagine my life without them.

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