Sisters: Looking Back

Eileen W. Fisher

© Copyright 2019 by Eileen W. Fisher


Soldiers looting and beating Jews.
Much has been written about the challenges that parents face when raising a child with a disability. Much less has been written about the challenges to the sibling of the child with a disability.

This is my story.

When we met last spring, I thanked you for teaching me how to swim and for the long walks we took on those Sundays when there was nothing else to do, and no one to do it with. But looking back, my childhood with you is much more complicated than that. Unlike in my relationship with Mom and Dad, here there were no defined roles. Even though you are older by two and a half years, who played the role of the ‘big sister’ was fluid. Often, I played the role of the ‘good child’, further complicating the situation. And, when thinking about us during those turbulent teenage years when I was trying to find my niche in the world, I find my memory fragmented and vague.

Our relationship might have been closer under different circumstance, but how it did play out has clearly influenced the person I am today. And… perhaps, this story will resonate with others who have been in similar situations.

Unfortunately, it was not until the second grade that anyone realized that you were having trouble seeing. You were diagnosed with amblyopia, or with a ‘lazy eye’: you were seeing better out of one eye than the other. By the time the problem was resolved, you were already struggling to catch up with the work you had missed in first grade. When it was time to do homework, you were constantly getting up and down from the table. Getting you to sit still and focus was difficult, as was getting you to listen.

At the same time, school work came easy to me. I worked hard – not only because the praise I received was such a motivating factor, but also because I didn’t want to further upset Mom and Dad. But to our parent’s credit, they never doubted that you had the potential to succeed, too.

Every Saturday morning, Dad drove you downtown for private tutoring. According to what you told me, it helped for a while, and then it didn’t. You needed more help than once a week, but at that time, there were no remedial classes. You never caught up.

Compounding the situation was the fact that the elementary school classes were grouped homogeneously; everyone knew how everyone else was doing. The brighter children were placed in the A and B classes. According to Mom, your classroom was situated at the end of the hallway, where not much learning was taking place. In junior high school, when you were again placed in a class for slow learners, Mom was at the principal’s door, insisting that you be transferred to a better class – at least one where the teacher was in control. Nonetheless, it was not until the following September that the change was made.

Although you continued to struggle academically in high school, at least you were fortunate in that the gym teacher recognized your swimming ability, and took you under her wing. You became her assistant and taught other girls how to swim. But come your senior year, there was no one to help you sort out your options after graduation – certainly not the guidance counselor. It was only with the encouragement of Mom and Dad that you applied to and graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a two-year associate degree in fine arts.

However, our careers and interests took such different paths that we continued to drift apart. We rarely saw each other after you moved to Florida.

I found my voice in writing and painting; you found your talent in crocheting. You always loved the out-of-doors, and especially animals. Your one regret in life was not pursuing a career in zoology. I always preferred to be indoors, in museums or walking the streets of Manhattan. You wondered how I could live in the city and not wake up to the sight of mountains, trees, and foliage – I could never see myself living anywhere else other than in New York.

 And, my dear sister, even though the choices we’ve made have it even more difficult for us to nurture and maintain a close relationship, I have never doubted your love for me. And, although my connection with you has not been what I had hoped for, I believe that my ability to empathize with those who struggle, albeit academically or emotionally, is the direct outcome of my life with you.

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