(PARENTING.com) -- When my younger sister brought her first child home from the hospital, I spent the night at her house to help. My brother-in-law had crashed, the house was dark and quiet, but Lori and I were still up at 2:00 in the morning, trying to decide why Max started crying the second he hit the bassinet sheets. Was he hungry? Cold?
Even a crying baby can bring peace into a home.
"Think you ought to try him on the other breast?" I asked carefully, working hard not to sound pushy.
"I don't know," she said. "You're the one who's done this before. What do you think?"
It's an ordinary exchange when there's a new baby in the family. Except in our family. Lori's six years younger than I am, five years younger than our brother, Billy. He and I were a team, raised almost as twins. We read the same books, shared the same group of friends, played the same games.
Lori came along late in the family narrative and was never quite on the same page. Not that she didn't try like a champion: "Can I play?" "Can I watch?" "Can I help?" "Can I have a turn?"
Our usual answer: "You're too young; you'll wreck it."
Lori spent her entire childhood trying to catch up with us, trying to prove that she was just as smart, just as fast, just as strong. By the time she could talk, the relationship was often adversarial. When Billy and I wouldn't let her join in, Lori retaliated the only way a younger sibling can -- by reporting on our activities. She was the enforcer, the snitch, and because we shared a room, there was no escaping her surveillance or my annoyance: "Crybaby!" I would hiss. "Tattletale!" Parenting.com: Are you becoming your mother?
I shouldn't have been surprised that by the time she was an adult, Lori carried a sequoia-size chip on her shoulder where I was concerned. I had plenty to say about her life, but let's just say she didn't welcome my advice. In fact, my sister spent her early adulthood making choices that seemed designed explicitly to rebuke my own.
When she was over 30 and I had cracked some joke about a ticking clock, Lori told me, "I don't want to make the same mistake you did, getting saddled with obligations too early. When I have children, I want to be sure I'm ready to settle down."
We loved each other, of course; during all those years, that was never in doubt. We talked on the phone several times a week and spent every birthday together. But it wasn't the kind of sisterly relationship I'd read about in books. There were too many squabbles over nothing, too few moments of absolute understanding.
The age of understanding
But then Lori became a mother. My nephew Max was born amid a flurry of complications -- shortly after our father's devastating cancer diagnosis, Lori developed a life-threatening case of preeclampsia. Parenting.com: My father-in-law, the nanny
All at once, everything was different. Suddenly she really did need help, but with our mother overwhelmed with caring for Dad, and our brother and his wife busy with their own baby, the only person left was me.
So when she said, "You're the one who's done this before. What do you think?" I couldn't believe those words were coming out of my sister's mouth. And I think she was probably equally startled by mine: "You're the one who knows him best. What do you think?" Right there in Lori's living room, over the head of my beautiful nephew, we somehow signed a truce.
I'm sure it helped that by then I'd given birth to my third child, Joe, who reminded me so much of my sister that I sometimes felt I'd stepped into some time-warped drama -- only now I was watching the show from the front-row seat of adulthood.
Like Lori, Joe is six years younger than the peremptory firstborn in the family, and, also like Lori, he has marshaled every ounce of his considerable energy to keep up with the big kids in the house. When he was 6 months old and barely able to sit up at all, Joe refused to sit in the high chair at suppertime; nothing would do but a booster seat at the big table. His whole life has been one long chorus of "Me, too!" and "Can I try?"
Watching my beloved baby son try so hard to keep up, it was impossible not to feel bad about the way I'd treated my baby sister, years ago, when all she wanted was a seat at the big table. How hard would it have been to say, every now and then, "Sure, sis, give it a try"?
These days, Lori's my role-model mom. With her two little boys, she's calm, loving, creative, firm. She knows when to flex and when to stick to her guns. She knows what to worry about and what to blow off -- something her Type A firstborn sister is still learning.
The other day, when my family was staying at her house for the weekend, Lori took all five of our boys out to a nearby field to shoot off toy rockets. It was the kind of outing I'd never have thought of in a million years -- and would have ruled out as too risky if I had. But my kids had the time of their lives.
The next day I took them to get three little rockets of their own.
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