"Dad's going to ask where he needs to go when you pick him up," says Almost Dr. Sis. I nod, still a little groggy after a few hours' sleep, at the sheaf of maps and schedules tucked next to the gearshift in her car.
In twenty minutes, after I drop my sister off at campus, I will be back in her apartment, where our other sister is still slumbering on the living room couch. At that time, I'll review the route to my parents' hotel that my sister has marked in pen and pink highlighter -- there's a road race that will close many nearby streets; I don't want to get caught in detour traffic -- and I'll reread the printout of the e-mail she's forwarded to our father about where to wait with all the other physicians who will be hooding a graduate. Though she's explained to him that all he needs to know is spelled out on this single piece of paper, we both know he'll ignore it.
It irritates me that as a doctor, this man is meticulous about procedure and expects everyone else he works with to be too, but that for this event, he won't even glance over these instructions. He's trained us well. This little exchange in my sister's car is one of too many in recent years, where we scramble behind the scenes to ensure his good humor. There's too much at stake otherwise, too many casualties in the cycle of blame. If he is tardy, fails to locate the processional line, enters by the wrong door, it will be his loss of face. But he'll tell us that we -- wife and daughters -- should have known where he was supposed to go, and then he'll sulk. The idea rankles because he is unfair, but more so because it would be especially unfair to my sister to have him mar her day so unnecessarily.
I've gone back through every page my sister's given me and added my own notes, just to make sure everything is clear, fighting off the familiar tightness in my chest that makes my breastbone ache whenever we have to keep my father on his best behavior. But I don't say anything as we drive, my sister and I, through the foggy streets of the city toward the university, where I'll deliver her for the all-college commencement exercises. (The rest of us will join her just for her hooding, a separate medical school ceremony.) Frowning into the passenger visor mirror, she fusses with the angle of her cap; I silently admire the blue-black sheen of her hair, which dulls even the rich velvet of the same color.
I can't imagine what is going through my sister's mind in this moment. At one time, I might have tried, but we've both changed -- not unexpectedly -- in these years since we lived under one roof, and the sisterly understanding we may have had when we shared an address has shifted into new territory. I want to sense, as I thought I once could, what she's feeling, but she doesn't speak, and I don't wish to disturb her silence. I can't trust the read I'm getting from the tension in her jaw, but I'm conscious of my own discomfort, that she can sense it, and that it's irritating her.
My thoughts turn to the terse whispers I overheard between my sister and her roommate as I was waking, a misunderstanding about who needed the shower first. (The roommate is on rotation at the hospital.) And then the box of Kleenex I finished shortly afterward -- not seeing a recycling bin but loath to add to the disarray spreading through every room, half of it the detritus of a messy roommate and the rest my sister's packing-in-progress, I catch her while she's ironing her dress. "What do you want me to do with this?" I ask, holding up the empty container.
"Don't recycle it," she says.
Dutifully, I break down the box and put it in the garbage can. Five minutes later, she clucks with dismay. "I needed that to hold other things," she says, exasperated.
It's a simple misunderstanding but somehow an emblematic one too. Such small incongruities -- if these exchanges are so hard for us to navigate, what else will I misinterpret? Back in the car, I'm gun-shy from the memory. Our disconnection feels more pronounced in this space than it has since those first years after I left college, the last home we ever shared.
I will myself to relax for her, not to make things worse. "You look great," I say as she gives her cap one last look in the mirror. I pull up to the curb of a circular driveway; she snatches her robes, peacock blue, from the back seat, and I tell her to call if she needs us to bring anything she's forgotten.
As she crosses the driveway toward the main hall, others in peacock emerge like rare birds. I feel the day's first ripple of excitement in my chest at these sightings, remembering what I am here to celebrate. I want to take out my camera, to catch my sister as she walks away, pulling her robe up by its billowing sleeve while juggling her purse. For a moment, in this awkward pose, she feels less intimidating to me, still very much that confident woman but with the spirit of a little girl playing dress-up.
She turns, though, noticing that I haven't pulled away. Maybe she sees me leaning over the passenger seat as I fumble through my bag and thinks I'm examining the maps to get back to her place. She steps back toward the car; I pull forward and open the window. "You're on A________ now, and you'll turn right onto E________ at the intersection," she says, not unkindly.
I smile and withhold my regret -- no picture, just the memory. I need to get out of the way so she can move on with whatever comes next.
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A Lesson in Ones and Twos
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