Growing up, I had four brothers and one sister, who was the oldest. I was next to the youngest and the baby girl. My sister, Leslie, was eleven years older than I was and held a special spot in my heart. She was the source of much love and affection and, over the years, was happy to provide advice on growing up, boys, and other complications in a young girl’s life.
Leslie started school early and graduated at 17. That meant I was only six when she headed off to college in another state. She came home on every holiday which made her absence easier, but she married at age 19 and, at that point, visited only once or twice a year. However, she made quite an effort to have me visit her, and I remember traveling to Denver, Salt Lake City, Sierra Madre, and Pasadena to see her over the years. Her husband was a civil engineer and they moved every year or two during the early years of their marriage. I was the lucky recipient of many invitations to join them over my summer vacations.
I also traveled with Leslie, her husband, and two kids on a wonderful camping trip when I was fifteen. We camped in Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks in Leslie and Ray’s VW bus and I can instantly travel back to that summer with its chilly mornings and sweet mountain air. My niece and nephew, who remain very important to me, were little then. In fact, I recall changing Jim’s diaper while at Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons.
I was so close to my sister that after my freshman year at the University of Texas, I transferred to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City so I could be near her during the time she and her husband were getting a divorce. I’m very happy I made that decision since Leslie and I had the chance to spend time together snowshoeing and cross-country skiing up in the Wasatch Mountains, plus camping with the kids in Southern Utah. This kept our connection alive and close through my early 20s and beyond. My relationship with Leslie was one of those bedrock connections that helped define who I am.
Unfortunately, after suffering a major concussion in her early 50s in a bicycle accident. Leslie began to shift in ways that I didn’t understand. She started having trouble keeping up with her paperwork when working as a psychologist, a situation that was very odd for my highly literate sister. She also became involved in a relationship that was unhealthy and which pulled her away from me and other people she loved. Finally, when she began displaying Alzheimer-like behaviors (such as getting lost on her daily walks), we began to understand the severe repercussions of that major concussion she’d experienced 20 years before. The scar tissue from the accident built up over time and slowly damaged her brain functioning. She died when she was 69, her body as healthy as a forty-year-old and her brain like that of a person in late-stage Alzheimer’s.
Despite the sad outcome of my sister’s life, I still think of those days we spent together when I was a teenager and a young adult. We laughed, camped, hiked, snowshoed, cross-country skied, sat around endless campfires, and talked, talked, and talked. We also sang together, and I’ll always remember the beautiful blend of our two soprano voices as we sang folk songs in her kitchen, in the car, or on a mountain trail.
How lucky I am to have had such a sweet and intimate relationship with my older sister. We loved each other dearly and had a trust that ran deep. I miss that she’s not here but am glad that she is free of that faulty brain that caused her life to change so dramatically. I also know that she is always with me in spirit and is available to offer sage advice any time I need it. That is, after all, what big sisters do.