The first time I met my sister Stella was in the hospital’s OBGYN unit. I was a hairless bundle swaddled in a stripped-pink and white blanket, cradled on my mother’s bosom, barely an hour old. Stella came up to me on her chubby two-year-old legs, eagle-eyed me, and poked me in the face. It went downhill after that—years of ardent one-upping on her part and tactical sidestepping on mine. The first truce came when Stella was fifteen—more on that later— but the real respite was when she left for NYU on a scholarship. A smooth wind blew in as she strutted out the door, age-old tired suitcases in both hands. She’d had a fit when Mom brought them back from the Goodwill. “But Mom! Look at the dings! And the hardware’s rusty, and the stitching’s coming apart!” she shrieked. “I think it’s romantic. Looks like you’re going on a Queen Mary cruise,” I told her. “And the locks work,” Willow added.
My younger sister Willow, who happens to be a doctor, said that any memory before the ages of three or four is purely fictional. “No, you can’t remember being pushed in a pram or jabbed in the face,” she said, “because to have memories, there has to be a sense of self and language. A child needs appropriate words to encode an event in her memory. Thus,” she concluded, “the trauma you claim took place in the post-partum unit is a figment of your imagination, pure and simple.” But I know what happened.
How my parents didn’t register that their second child’s arrival had propelled their firstborn onto a warpath was beyond me. Had they paid a little more attention, they’d have seen the signs from the get-go, if not during our first introduction at the hospital, at least after the stork’s third visit, bringing us Willow. But maybe they did see the signs and unsure of what to do next, chose to ignore them and prayed at Sunday mass for divine intervention.
Since I’ve become a mom myself and watched other parents interact with their kids over the years, I’ve arrived at a different conclusion: Stella was their favorite.
Every parent has a favorite. Every single one of them. If they tell you otherwise, they’re lying. It’s written in their DNA. And favorites usually are the firstborns, the first true loves. Of course, my parents always denied it, but it was evident that Stella was their darling. When you think about it, I guess it’s normal. Stella was the honeymoon child, the product of passion and primal lust. They were committed to excellence when they enthusiastically conceived her and hand-picked their best genes giving her beauty, smarts, talents, and potential in abundance. They did well: Stella bedazzled everyone she met. When they produced me two years later, lackluster had already insidiously invaded their queen-size sleigh bed; they were scattered, their lovemaking lacked ardor, and they fertilized my egg with leftovers. So unfair. The lesson here is that enthusiasm is the key to doing anything and everything, right? If one is excited at the core by an idea, a deed of any kind, including making babies, the energy poured into the endeavor guarantees its brilliance and success. How could anything done in dullness ever sparkle?
And so, growing up, Stella was the Rolex with diamonds, and I was the Timex with a plastic band. My name is Daisy, but whenever Stella was around, I was Plain Jane.
Willow came two years after me. She was different, right up from her first breath. In the zygote that my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg spawned was a wise soul. Just like the Whispering Willow tree, she was born with an innate sense of balance and acceptance, instinctively knowing how to bend without breaking. I remember when Willow was one-year-old napping on the living room rug, Stella, who had just turned six that day, sat on her embedding her into piles of coco yarn. When my parents asked her why she did it, her response was, “It’s my birthday. You said I could do what I want, and I don’t want her here anymore.” Willow just smiled like a little buddha and circumnavigated her for the next thirteen years, and when she couldn’t dodge her, she capitulated to all her demands with a smile. Wise child that she was, Willow decided early on that the sensible path in life was to accept the things she couldn’t change and adjust rather than fight upstream battles when the current was beyond her control. She became, of course, a psychiatrist.
Back to Stella. Following in her footsteps was hardcore donkeywork. She was gifted in every way, figuring out math equations before anyone else in the class, crossing the finishing line first on her ostrich-long legs. And her behavior, too, was stellar: she kept her elbows off the dining table, lined up her clothes by color theme in her closet, set the table before each meal, arrived home before curfew, waited for the little green man to cross the road—all without being asked. I was messy, noisy, and swore like a sailor.
Being a favorite comes with godsend favors, attention-time-money-gloating. Stella got brand-new clothes, and I inherited hand-me-downs. That was the part I resented the most, getting an oyster color sweater and clearly remembering it being flamingo pink when she first wore it. And I believe that what she hated the most was when my parents patted anyone’s back but hers. I remember one day coming back from kindergarten with a drawing of our family home. In it stood three people next to a stick house holding hands: a man, a woman clutching a baby looking like a peanut, and one little girl with blond curls. Stella wasn’t in the picture; since I couldn’t erase her from my reality, I obliterated her from my object d’art. My parents gushed over my drawing, each exaggerated praise adding fire to Stella’s cheeks; I swear I saw smoke coming out of her ears. That night she took down the picture from the refrigerator door where Mom had taped it and shredded it to smithereens, leaving tiny paper ribbons scattered over the floor. That was Stella. Get it? She fought a fierce competition for years, going for the gold even in the most trivial things like bathroom occupancy. The single contest I ever won was the day I ate the most waffles. I was nine.
But then, when I was thirteen, I had an epiphany. Fifteen-year-old Stella had somehow scored a C+ on her algebra test instead of her usual A+. I saw her during recess sitting by herself as she always did under the elm tree in the corner of the schoolyard. She had her arms folded around her bent knees, and between her fingers, a sheet of paper fluttered in the wind. She looked like a bird that’d landed on a live wire. Leaving my friends behind, I walked stealthily towards the elm, not knowing how she’d react to my public display of sisterly concern—one always walked on eggshells around Stella. But for once, she didn’t jump down my throat; instead, she looked at me with saucer eyes and said, “This is a tragedy.” I sat next to her, leaned my back against the tree, and took the sheet out of her hands. At the top of the page, a letter C+ written in bold red ink screamed at me as if it wanted to fly off and disappear into thin air.
“You got a C+?” I blurted. Her chin trembled. “Stella, come on, it’s no big deal. I get Cs all the time. Heck, I celebrate when it’s not a D!”. With her sleeve, she wiped the single tear hanging in the corner of her eye before it escaped. “I’m so ashamed. What am I going to do?” She sounded like a dying mouse. “Stella, for Christ’s sake! You’re not announcing you’re going to have a baby! It’s just a C!” But nothing I came up with eased her agony. I couldn’t believe my eyes: who was this girl? Surely, this ashen-faced-crumpled person couldn’t be Stella-the-tormentor? Feeling a thickness in my throat, I inched a little closer and grazed her arm. She looked at me and whispered, “What’s dad going to say?” That’s when amnesty came like a lightning bolt: Stella wasn’t fighting us; she was fighting herself! Until that day, I had always thought she was Miss Perfect, but maybe she wasn’t perfect. Maybe she just had to be because so many great expectations laid on her shoulders. The bar she had set for herself was so ridiculously high that when she failed to reach it— which to my knowledge had never happened before— she had a total melt-down. Yes, being firstborn and favorite had its advantages, but at what price? It had to be exhausting to always thrive at being the best, always having to come up to the plate, fulfill your parents’ forecasts and surpass your own. Must have been like swimming up current in a raging river day after day—a herculean effort.
I had it easy. My parents didn’t hold their breath while contemplating my future’s panorama. I don’t think they had any earth-shattering expectancies about me. What were the probabilities they’d have two stars in a row? They hadn’t banked on it and let me off the hook. I did what I wanted, mostly, I had a free pass to be me, which was as simple as ABC. By the time I was in elementary school, I knew I wasn’t defect-less. I accepted it, gave bloopers and failures the green light, and let the whole world see me. It’s not that I didn’t have ambitions; I did. Let’s just say that while Stella aimed for excellence, I made sure my goals were attainable, required mini efforts, and delivered maxi returns. I know my parents didn’t love me any less for it.
The night of the infamous math report, Mom made parmesan chicken with artichoke hearts. It was Uncle Jim’s favorite, and Mom always cooked special when he visited. Uncle Jim’s my only uncle, Dad’s young brother. He joined the Marine Corps after college, and whenever he was on leave, he’d come to stay with us, first by himself, then with Kate when they started dating, and later with Kate and their little girl Lily. I adore my uncle, and I adored Kate and Lily. I remember how Kate tressed ribbons in my hair and let Willow win every game of chess after teaching her the game, and how she made buckets of popcorn and endured our Disney movies marathons. One Halloween, she even ate one of those Trick-or-treat fizz bombs. She’d never had one before. As soon as she popped the round sweet into her mouth, the fizz released, and she pulled a face that had Willow and me howling for five minutes straight. Uncle Jim said that Kate’s taste buds quit working for a week after that. But Kate and Lily are gone now; they died years ago in a fire. Uncle Jim’s never been the same since. I don’t see him much except for early mornings when he comes around Dad’s place. The rest of the time, you’ll find him in his Airstream, drunk.
When the whole family had gathered around the dinner table, and Dad said grace, Stella announced she’d gotten a C+ on her algebra test. I remember the silence that followed. Uncle Jim almost choked, and Willow putting her fork down, calmly patted him on the back. My parents looked like a hammer had hit them in the head, not because they were disappointed—they weren’t— but because this blemish on Stella’s report card was so out of the ordinary, so unexpected. “What will my punishment be?” Stella asked. “What do you mean?” Mom said after recomposing herself. “What is an appropriate punishment for my failure? Which privilege will you remove?” I couldn’t believe she said that. Who would ask such a thing? Was she a sucker for punishment? My parents looked at each other, struggling to hold the giggles inside their mouths. “It’s not about being perfect sweetheart, it’s about giving it your best effort,” my father finally said, “and we know you always do.” My mother chimed in, “We’re proud of you, honey. There’s not going to be any punishment.” That wasn’t the answer Stella wanted. Quietly folding her napkin, she asked to be excused, left the dining table, and went to her room. I grabbed her untouched plate of artichoke chicken and wiped it clean.
After the epiphany, I started looking at Stella differently; it was as if my pupils had been given lasers, and I could see straight through her. What I saw was that the bully was, in truth, more fragile than anyone thought. Stella only existed through the eyes of others, and what those lenses reflected was a matter of life and death to her. I had an enormous capacity for self-embarrassment, but I realized then that proud Stella had none; she cared too much about what others thought of her. Shame could break her; mockery could crush her, and indifference was her guillotine. Stella had to be admired to feel worthy. Period.
Trapped in her pursuit of perfection, she avoided anything that could derail her, no parties, no fun, no games. I try to remember a moment of glee in her life, but I can’t find one. She had always been suspicious of displays of joy anyway and voluntarily sabotaged any incoming one. Humans are programmed for laughter; everybody knows even that babies laugh before they can talk. But not Stella, she never did. She might have felt a tickle in her tummy when hearing something funny, but she gagged it long before it became hilarity. She was an emotional mute. I bet she never felt her heart race riding a roller coaster or slow almost to a halt watching the sunrise over the meadows, never had goosebumps or butterflies in her tummy listening to the Star-Spangled Banner. And that’s sad because seriously, who hasn’t felt the urge to roll in the hay, tumble down a hill, dance in the rain till their knees fold, howl till their ribs ache and tears roll down their face, be stupid in love? I’ve never even seen my sister lay in the spongy grass or on a bed of pine needles and look at the clouds.
I changed after the incident, gave up the competition, but Stella focused on her belly button, never noticed, and continued battling everybody and herself, day-in, day-out, fighting for medals, attention, or just to be right. I stood on the sidelines and watched her shine like a brand-new penny every day for years, but my heart ached inside for all the living she was missing.
Miraculously, at the same time, things became a little easier for me: whenever Stella called me loser, stupid, or tagged me for being overly slothful, I shrugged it off because I was me and me was enough. That’s also when I started loving her.
Don’t get me wrong; we weren’t BFFs. I was still blacklisted from her room—and she guarded the door like a Stalin-era Russian emigration officer. We didn’t wear matching outfits on family Christmas photos, hold hands, and sing kumbaya around fire camps. Although I admit, I would have liked it because, frankly, I was in awe of her. She was something else. When she played Juliet at our high-school graduation gala, she looked like a gorgeous celestial creature beamed down from the heavens. When she fell during a five-mile race and still finished a minute ahead of everyone cradling her bleeding elbow, I roared like a tiger, “That’s my badass sister!” She had an aura of mystery surrounding her like a cloak that made me gaze at her in wonder, so untouchable she seemed. Sometimes she’d say things that were so stupidly smart that I’d gawk, wishing I could pick her brain more. But most of the time, she acted like she didn’t know I existed. Willow avoided her as much as possible, but all I wanted was to be on her radar. Had she given me the time of day, I believe we’d have been good friends. I still do.
If Stella had all the goods, there was one embryonic gift my parents had saved for me: the happy chromosome. Happiness comes naturally to me, I find it everywhere, and when I can’t find it, it finds me. People who don’t know me well think I secretly grow weed in my attic. I don’t. I’m just on a natural high. I think I scored. Don’t you agree?