“Rub the Buddha belly, Rylee,” my older sister, Katie, said to her daughter.
Rylee smiled up at me and gingerly put her hand on the crest of my pregnant abdomen. She moved it back and forth, with a hesitant, irritating judder.
I smiled, but had to grit my teeth to not swat her hand away.
I felt ashamed of my knee-jerk reaction, but frustrated that my sister didn’t remember how ticklish I am.
Mostly, I was tired and afraid.
Any day now, labor would start. Any day now, I would become a mother.
“I should give you some back rubs!” Katie said, her voice cheerful.
I cringed, trying not to show it. The idea of anyone touching me right now made me want to cry. Anyone, but especially my sister.
She had called months before, her voice joyful, and told me she was coming. “I can come for two weeks,” she said. “So I have a really good chance of being there for the big day!”
I sat on the floor, and bent my knees up against my belly, as if to shield myself. “That’s great,” I said, trying to make my voice sincere. “That’s great you’ll be here.”
I meant it, and I didn’t. I felt honored my sister wanted to be there for my birth. I knew she was telling me she loved me by showing up.
But also, I didn’t know exactly why she was coming. We didn’t talk regularly—she would disappear for months, sometimes a year at a time, not answering my calls or emails, her voice mail so overfull I couldn’t even leave a message. Then one day she would call out of the blue, and tell me she loved me, and we’d talk.
We’d grown up mostly apart—her at a children’s home, me with our parents. Even when we were children, I was thirsty for any detail about who she was and what she was like and what she did each day.
On her calls, I’d get a few hints: her new art studio, her daughter’s antics, the church she’d started attending, but after a half-hour of us exchanging our stories, she’d say she had to go. When I hung up, I’d wonder when—or if—I’d hear her voice again.
Did she want to be sisters, or not? How could the barrier between us come down unless she opened up?
A week and a half later, my water broke. Labor was a freight train, contractions one after another during my home birth. I lost a decent amount of blood after the labor, so much so that my midwife set me up with an IV to replenish my fluids. The morning after, I was so shaky I had to hold the sides of the shower.
And then, for two days, I didn’t sleep.
On the third morning, my sister came over by herself, without my niece. She knocked tentatively at my bedroom door and peeked in. I was alone; she was there to relieve my husband so he could buy groceries.
My newborn was lying on the middle of the bed, asleep, and I was trying to tidy the room. I hardly looked at my sister as I organized, picking up things and setting them down, so desperate to rest I could not stop moving.
“How are you?” she said.
I stopped. For a moment, I contemplated lying. I did not want to admit I was poised on the edge of a cliff.
Then my face crumpled, and I started to cry.
In two strides, she had her arms around me. She held on tight as I stuttered out the long nights, how my usual insomnia had worsened, and how other events after the birth had undone me. I unspooled there in her arms, no longer strong enough to hold myself together.
She held me so tight I knew I was safe. I was astonished to realize how safe she was. She was safe, as though there had never been any barrier between us.
Later, I lay in the bed next to my daughter, while Katie gave me the massage she’d promised. Her hands smoothed away the knot in my shoulders, rubbed away the charley horse in my thigh. It felt incredible.
She had never touched me like this.
I had never allowed her to.
All this time, I had wondered what was wrong with her. I wondered why she didn’t reach out to me. I wondered why she was afraid. I measured the distance between us and assumed she’d need to be the one to bridge it.
I thought it would take a gargantuan effort, something, perhaps, beyond her.
There, safe in my sister’s arms, I realized the truth: the barriers were as much about me as they were about her. And instead of a great force of will, what I’d needed to do was completely let go, and allow her to hold me.