After weeks of begging, two days of tryouts, and quite a bit of unnecessary nail-biting, my sister was selected to play on the elite club volleyball team for her age group. Yesterday was “commitment day”, which for players meant officially becoming a member of the team, but for parents (who were reminded multiple times by email), it mostly meant cutting a check to the powers that be to solidify their child’s spot.
The commitment period was from 4-8pm at a local middle school, and at 3:30 sharp, my sister began nagging me to go. While two other clearly uninterested sisters waited in the car, I was dragged into the athletic wing of the school, where bright orange walls were lined with trophy cases, and painted with black silhouettes of athletes playing various sports. Of course, the first checkpoint’s purpose was payment collection, and as I handed over the check, the woman gave me a look I’ve become all too familiar with over the past two years; she was trying to decide if I was my sister’s mother or not.
After exchanging awkward smiles and small talk with her, we wandered the dimly lit, locker-lined hallways to fulfill the remaining checkpoints: Verify your spot on the roster in the lunchroom. Try on uniforms in the ladies’ restroom. Remember your sizes so that you can order online in the computer lab. Along the way, we ran into the mother of a girl on the team, who had also played with my sister on her school team during its season. Fixing her face into the furrowed brow, sorrowful pout combination that is universally meant to display sympathy, she hugged us both, and offered her condolences. “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” she said, before directing us to the next location.
On the way out, we ran into her again, this time with another mother who I had not yet met. After nearly crushing my hand with an overwhelmingly firm handshake while introducing herself, she also offered her condolences, and said “That must be a lot for you, filling that role while still trying to grieve. All of you will definitely be in my prayers.” I put on my very best fraudulent smile and gave a well-rehearsed generic response: “Thank you so much. It’s been very difficult, but we have a lot of support, so we’re grateful.” I paused, then added: “Yeah, very difficult. Today makes it a month, actually, since my mother passed.”
I realized in that moment that I had gone the entire day without being aware of its significance, despite the fact that in days prior, I had been dreading facing it. Perhaps I’d successfully suppressed my thoughts, or maybe being inundated with the celebration of Veteran’s Day had served as a serendipitous distraction, but it just hadn’t quite hit me until then. And so, of course, I embarrassed myself by beginning to cry in front of a complete stranger. At least it was a pretty cry; quiet, with single streaming tears from each eye, and no sobbing or snot. While lightly patting my back, she assured me that from what she’d heard, I’d done an excellent job caring for my mother, and I should find comfort in the fact that she was in heaven.
My sister, engaging in a conversation a few feet away with a teammate, made and then quickly broke eye contact with me, her face showing that she was acutely aware of what I must have been discussing. As we left, our only conversation was about how she had dropped and cracked her iPhone in the bathroom while trying on jerseys. Later that evening, while entering the gym with two of my other sisters, I mentioned what had happened at the school, and was met with silence from one, and a flat “Oh, yeah” from the other in regards to what day it was.
As the oldest of the six children in my family, I am very protective of my younger siblings, and it hurts that I cannot protect them from the agony of losing our mother. She was sick for five and a half years, and the youngest four children in particular had the least amount of time with her while she was well. I was in college, and my next youngest sister was two months from high school graduation when our mother was diagnosed; my remaining siblings were all in elementary school. The pain that I feel from the permanence of my mother’s absence, and the burden I continue to hold of being this odd pseudo-matriarch for my family, is very real. But each time I feel overwhelmed, or cannot keep from crying, or ache with longing for all of this to somehow be reversed, I can’t help but wonder what my sisters and brother think and feel, how their young minds are attempting to process things.
At times I find myself hurting more over my siblings, their pain, and the arduous months and years ahead of them, than the actual loss of my mother.