Growing up, it was just the two of us: Mary Lee and me. Three years younger than me, my little sister was a Pest with a capital “P”. She drove me crazy when we were little kids. My mom made me drag Mary Lee along wherever I went. “Why do I have to take her? Why can’t she stick with kids her own age?” I’d complain. On October 10, my resentment kicked into high gear. With no major holidays looming, my mother had plenty of time to plan and prepare an elaborate celebration for Mary Lee’s birthday. A pretty cake, great presents, and a birthday party, too. Two months later, when my December birthday rolled around, my mom would say, “Sorry, Kathleen, not this year. I’m busy getting ready for Christmas and I don’t have time to fuss and throw you a birthday party. ” A further indignity? My birthday present each year was always the same: house slippers. HOUSE SLIPPERS! Every year! “Santa is coming,” my mother would say, reminding me not to pout. “He’ll bring you something nice for Christmas.”
Talk about unfair. Was it my fault I was born in December? I coveted Mary Lee’s October birthday, and I coveted her cake, too. Pink frosted roses! Mine featured a big ugly red poinsettia. Mary Lee got great gifts (baby dolls, Barbie dolls, paint sets, etc.) plus a party, too. As for me, I was lucky to get those dang slippers and the cardboard box they came in. “It’s just not fair,” I’d tell myself, even though deep down I knew it wasn’t Mary Lee’s fault our mother was busy, and that I’d been born so close to Christmas. And despite everything, I loved my little sister. Mary Lee was always at my side, ready to play endless games of Monopoly and Yahtzee, play dress-up, watch cartoons. I dictated, she willingly followed. Years later, after I started scribbling down all the stories rambling around in my head, Mary Lee was a willing reader. The years passed, we grew up, and my resentments were forgotten. I no longer saw her as a pest, and came to appreciate having a sister. We spent a lot of time gabbing about our parents, our husbands (her bad marriage and divorce), our kids, our work, my books, our lives. Mary Lee had a sense of adventure and loved nothing more than ditching reality and piling in the car for an afternoon excursion with me and all the kids. And while she didn’t have much of a voice, she was always an enthusiastic participant in any family sing-along, especially when it came to celebrating birthdays.
Today, October 10, is my sister’s birthday. I’m thinking about Mary Lee today, and all those years I spent taking her for granted. How I wish I could take them all back. Mary Lee was only 36 when she died after a brief battle with breast cancer. She was my sister, my friend, and my very first reader. She was the only member of our family who was an enthusiastic supporter of my writing. Mary Lee looked forward to the day my books were finally published. “Someday lots of people will read your books, Kathleen.” The day following her death, my mother and I went inside Mary Lee’s house to begin cleaning it out. There on a nightstand beside her bed, I found the most recent pages of the manuscript I was writing. Mary Lee had been reading one of my unpublished stories just before she died.
If Mary Lee were alive today, I’d bake her a huge birthday cake, and smother it with pink frosted roses (maybe even a poinsettia or two). I would gladly throw her a birthday party, too. Mary Lee grew up having birthday parties and she expected them…the same way she must have expected she would still be alive to celebrate the next year, and the next, and all the years after that. The same way she expected that her big sister would someday be a published author. The same way her big sister expected her little sister would always be there.
Sometimes, the story doesn’t end the way you think it will. Sometimes, you just never know.
Write the book. Live your dreams. Love who you want to love. Life is too short not to do these things.
Do it for yourself. Do it for me. Do it for Mary Lee.