“Okay, putting you on speaker.”
“Sydney? Siiiiiiidney! It’s Uncle Eric! Why are you crying? Don’t cry, honey!”
“It’s not working.”
“Try singing to her? She likes singing.”
“Okay, um… ABDCEFG…”
“Keep going, it’s working.”
“Twinkle twinkle little star…”
April is a big month of lifecycle events in my family. Our parents’ anniversary, cousins’ birthdays, two anniversaries for Simone’s mom and me (our wedding, and, five years later, our divorce), and the birthdays of my loving, supportive, sisters. Who also happen to be my best friends.
The months before, during, and now following the loss of my father turned out to be a gift to our relationships with each other — spending more time together, forcing us to engage with each other when we were at our worst, learning that we all had different approaches to dealing with what was happening, and coming together when it was time to stand by my father’s grave and say goodbye.
But my middle sister, Sarah, and I will be forever indebted to our youngest sister for stepping up in every way during the difficult months. Living 90 minutes from Sacramento meant that Karen was the go-to person for all things Dad-related, with newborn baby in tow. She was our direct line of insight about his state-of-mind, his outlook, his wishes and needs. She was the essential buffer between us and our father’s wife when the intensity of the situation made communication fraught and uncomfortable. She even made travel arrangements for Dad’s wife to attend his funeral.
I would visit my father’s house every month or so, when parenting, work, and flight schedules coalesced. Sarah did her best to get there, too. But Karen would drop everything (except the baby) and hightail her way up the highway on a weekly basis. While Sarah and I would dip our toes into the morass of sadness, our father’s weakening state, and the atmosphere of hopelessness that consumed the house, then head home, Karen was immersed in it. We were tourists. She was a local.
And let’s not forget that Karen was also juggling my mother’s grief at losing her own husband and the impending loss of her first love and best friend of 50 years.
All during her pregnancy and following the birth of sweet Sydney, Karen fell into the role of nexus for our family; somehow managing to keep us all informed, smooth out hurt feelings and miscommunications, and hold our father’s hand when we couldn’t be there, while parenting two young stepdaughters and a newborn baby, staying present for her awesome husband, and keeping the rest of her life afloat.
And she did it all with a sort of otherworldly grace that’s making me cry right now, thinking about it.
Sarah and I are putting our heads together to come up with a lasting way to show our appreciation to Karen for everything she has done (and is still doing…like going through Dad’s clothes with his widow to see what should be saved, donated, or thrown away…holy crap.). But in the meantime, this is my birthday gift to her: a long-ass way of saying thank you.
I love both of my sisters equally, but my relationship with each of them is very different.
I don’t know enough about birth order to say whether Karen manifests the typical youngest child behaviors. Yes, she was a terror early on (the cutest naughty child on the planet), and sure, Sarah and I thought she got a much better deal from our parents, and, yeah, she was the most rambunctious teenager of the three of us. But my middle sister and I were complicit in spoiling her with attention, and when I moved away to college, Karen felt my absence keenly.
It wasn’t until we were adults, living thousands of miles apart, that our relationship became one of close friends and confidants, one of the few people in my life with whom I could share anything, knowing I’d be treated with respect (mostly) and blunt honesty (“Eric, did Mom have any sons who weren’t total idiots? What were you thinking?”). Karen provides me with wisdom when it comes to the right thing to say (aka “You can’t send that text. Pick up the phone.”), or how to be a better manager at work (her HR chops have saved me many times), while I can talk to her about co-parenting, edit her writing, give her advice about her burgeoning HR consulting business, and laugh through her rants.
When we were working our way through the mourning process, we’d text or talk often, trying to figure out what we could, should, or wanted to do. Sharing thoughts and rationales with someone who was also intent on following Jewish observance in meaningful but practical ways was a comfort in such an alien landscape.
My sisters want me to find love. But Karen is the one most interested in playing an active role in making this happen. In her mind, that one right girl is out there, and I may be too much of a dumbass to recognize her. Yes, she wants me to be happy, but she also wants a new sister for Sarah and her to adore; someone to laugh with, someone to share with, someone who will join them in making fun of me.
Karen has even threatened to start a website dedicated to finding someone for me.
But what really blows me away about my youngest sister is how she has come into her own as a mother. After dating her future husband for a bit more than a year, she jumped into her insta-family, taking on the role of stepmother to two young girls going through serious transitions of their own, and learning what they needed most along the way.
Karen went from single lady with a cool boyfriend to one of those kick-ass moms who can laugh and be silly while setting down the structures and limits that all kids desperately need. I’ve always wondered about step-parenting; how you balance being likable and fun but not a pushover. How you discipline someone else’s children, even when the other parent is in the room. How to develop a loving relationship that works for both adult and child. It sounds thankless and difficult and fraught with peril.
As a fairly competent parent, I think I could manage that balance and do well as a stepfather, though it would still give me pause. But Karen somehow does it all, pretty close to flawlessly, without the benefit of 14 years of parenting experience. She loves being a mom to her two stepdaughters…she has from the day she took on that role.
If she’s awesome with the girls, she’s transcendent with baby Sydney. My baby sister is a mother of three young girls, and she’s crushing it.
I miss both of my sisters every single day. I’m so lucky to have such close, honest, and loving relationships with them. They are my support and strength even when they're a thousand miles away.
So happy birthday, Karen! Sarah and I are so fortunate to have you as our sister and best friend.
I love you!