I’m told that young boys tend to view the arrival of new siblings — particularly the arrival of sisters — somewhere between skepticism and outright xenophobia.
But when my mother, seated next to my father, tells me, “David, you’re going to be a big brother in August — you’re going to have a baby sister!” I am euphoric. My own little sister! Me, a big brother — with a critical role to play in showing her all there is to know about life as a kid. I’d be her tour guide and trailblazer. Macaroni and cheese? Mandatory. Nintendo? Mission critical. Vegetables? Ehh, let me show you how to make a blanket fort.
I couldn’t believe it — a sister. I’d overheard conversations about my parents trying for another child. Whatever they’d tried had clearly worked.
The idea of a sister hypnotizes me. Enthralls me. And frustrates — what kind of parents offer up a surprise that won’t arrive for another six months?
But it doesn’t mean I’m not waiting in anticipation. I ask the questions any curious child might.
“Mom, do you think Sarah will want to play Matchbox cars with me?”
“I don’t know, David.”
“Okay, but guess!”
“Yes, honey, I think she’ll want to play Matchbox cars with you.”
On August 11, 1990, I’m woken from sleep by my father.
It starts with a gentle rub on my back and a sweet whisper in my ear. “David, honey?” He’s trying to gently wake me without startling me.
Sleep masks my eyes. I roll onto my back reluctantly, willing to engage so long as it means staying in this warm bed. “Yes, daddy?” I pull my hands over my eyes to thwart the light peeking inside the window. Normally, since it’s summer break, my parents let me wake up when I’m ready. I love my dad, but he’s violating that.
He continues to stroke my back. “I have exciting news for you, buddy…” he says, and then pauses. I sense he’s waiting for me to respond. His head is tilted with his chin pointed toward me. Warm body language. I roll onto my side to face him eye-to-eye, then wipe more sleep from my eyes. “What, daddy?”
“Well… you’re a big brother! Your baby sister was born last night,” he says enthusiastically.
“Sarah? Sarah!” I exclaim. She’s finally here. I have a sister!
I’m no longer interested in rest. I sit up in my purple and green Donatello pajamas. Weeks prior, we’d sat at the kitchen table and had an informal meeting to discuss the naming of my soon-to-be-sister.
Mom: “We’re thinking Victoria, but we’d call her Tory for short.”
Me: “Why give her a name and call her something else?”
Dad: “How about Alexis?”
Me: “I have a cousin named Alexis.”
Me again: “How about Sarah?”
*Mom and dad*: “Actually…we really like that name.”
Maybe that’s not exactly how it went. But the name stuck.
Sarah Linn Berry came into the world just as her date of birth was about to roll into the next — August 10, 1990 at 11:57 p.m.
It’s also the same start time of my first love story. Or at least the first love that I felt like I chose for myself.
I grew up in love. Mom and dad, some aunts and uncles and one set of grandparents; they all showered me in it. Molded me in its routines and rituals. The safe places and the gentle, encouraging words.
But I belonged to them. Sarah belonged to me.
What implications come from being a boy, then a man, in the life of your younger sister? I hadn’t a passing thought, let alone a satisfactory answer. But at a cellular level, I knew. I recognized the assignment, the privilege.
For the first time, I’d be the one with the chance to give the love I’d been given. On my terms. If my love was like the creation of a young artist, then this was my purest effort, my most earnest endeavor. Unrefined but prodigious. Adept yet unpracticed.
I walk into the hospital room and peer into the cradled cocoon of my mother’s arms. And suddenly, there she is. The nerves are gone as I see her little face enter my field of vision. Creamy, light brown skin adorns her face, with thick wisps of dark hair grace her forehead. “She looks like your dad,” everyone will say in the days and weeks to come.
But all I see, I understand, is magic.
I treasured her before she existed, and built my life as a living shrine to her after she was born. It’s been that way ever since.
How she’d crawl onto the small of my back while I rested face-down, elbows up to watch cartoons. I’d let her fall asleep there, curled up like a bug. How I’d give her the free Nintendo controller to play alongside me, because she loved being next to me too — even though the controller was never plugged in. I’d roll her in her Big Wheel down the driveway, cheering for her as her face lit-up with delight. I chased down a radio show host at a live remote inside a bowling alley so I could bring home the Barney t-shirt I’d seen on his table of prizes for an on-air contest. Barney is my sister’s favorite, I explained. He handed it over.
We went to Italy together in summer 2009, finding rest in the youth hostels of Rome, Florence and Venice. Together, we’d climbed inside and up to the cupola — the dome — of Florence’s famed Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Il Duomo di Firenze. Months after returning, we made permanent that memory, a peak shared experience from the trip. A tattoo on our respective right shoulders — the coordinates to the cathedral itself.
Love’s compulsion is to make permanent what is fleeting, that which we can grab hold of for as long as we live, but never long enough. So a modicum of ink to adorn our flesh, as a means to bridge the void that’s left in moments apart, feels like a reasonable investment. To draw close what might feel distant when one calls home a place 1,200 miles from the other.
Today is agony.
Waiting. Burdened by doubt and fears for the worst. I’d liken it to the sight of wheeling a loved one into a major surgery which, despite assurances of a good outcome, has you fearing the what if. What if this is the time it doesn’t go right? What if she’s not the same after?
What if this is the last time I ever speak to her?
I am numb to all around me as I sit in my living room. A version of me is fighting to be heard, the version who’d have built his home and his life on the firm foundation of shared love with his sister just days ago. But that version of me isn’t here anymore.
So he can’t help me. I know too much. I no longer have the fearless confidence that comes from knowing who I am as it relates to who she is.
Less than two days ago, in addition to having my biological connection to my father taken, it was confirmed that Sarah had also been conceived through a donor.
I asked, earnestly, if it was possible we’d been conceived from the same donor.
“We really don’t know, sweetheart,” my mom said. “But to be honest, it was close to six years later. So, we doubt it. When we had you, our biggest wish was for a healthy baby. By the time we had your sister, things were more advanced. They had books you could pick from, biological traits you could read about. It doesn’t feel likely that the same donor would’ve been there six years later.”
My eyes wander and lock in to focus on the midnight blue wall. Flat paint. I’m in a daze. It’s 2:30 p.m., and my parents aren’t seeing Sarah until 6:30 p.m. My arms feel at once disconnected from my body, a floating head without a home. I am terrified that my sister might take this news differently than I have — that she might reject me once she hears it. And because of that, I physically struggle to feel my own limbs.
Maybe there’s no way to explain the greatest love, only to take stock in the catastrophe of its wake. Love’s double-edged sword is that you can only feel the peak of its power in its absence.
My sister is woven to me, the way one thread of a fabric requires the other to take form. I am not my whole without her. For the first time in my life, I am forced to entertain the possibility of such a scenario becoming real. A loose thread that could unravel me entirely.
This is my Friday. Two days before my 33rd birthday.
Jessi arrives home at 6:00 p.m. The front door is in plain sight of the high-top kitchen table where I’m seated. I turn to her as the door opens, but my face is vacant. 30 minutes to go. She immediately closes the door and walks to me, pulling my head to her chest. And I plummet into despair, a heap of tears dampening her shirt. The type of unconstrained emotional display that is only available to someone who knows he has lost control.
An hour passes. It’s 7:00 p.m. I’m watching the digital reading on my iPhone like it’s the countdown clock on a bomb. Mom and dad would’ve gotten to Sarah’s house 30 minutes ago.
I’m seated on the sofa, posture-perfect with my legs extended out on the chaise. My eyes remain fixed on that same, endless blue on the wall, a vast ocean that I can recognize but not fathom. I reason that this — this conversation between my parents and sister — could take a half hour. Maybe. But they also know I’m waiting for her call.
The highlight reel that is me and my sister as one plays through my mind while I wait. I’ve mined emails, old text messages, hand-written letters — all of it — in the past two days.
Just to draw her close.
September 24, 2007: Hey Brother! I just wanted to say that I love you and I hope you have an amazing birthday! I miss you so much and I hope you are having an amazing time down there. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of you and how you are. I want you to know that I really am so proud of you and everything that you have done with your life so far. It makes me so happy to be able to call you MY brother. I hope that you have an AMAZING 23rd birthday and know that I’m thinking of you! I love you very much!
Love Always, Sarah XOXOXOX
7:20 p.m. Jessi, unsure of how much space to give or not give me, walks back into the room and quietly situates herself next to me. I find her hand, but my eyes are locked on that wall.
Sarah is doing cartwheels through the living room, and on the landing, she grabs the plastic echo microphone and croons, “Shine bright, shine far, don’t be shy, be a star… where you live, where you are, be a star!” It’s a song from a Disney movie that I hate, but she sings it with such enthusiasm and panache that I always laugh. That’s Sarah.
7:45 p.m. My numbness has subsided. All I feel is strain and discomfort. My fingertips burn with energy, a tension that fills the rest of me too. My eyes flit between the clock on my phone and that same midnight blue on the wall.
At 8:03 p.m., the phone rings.
Sarah’s name and picture pop up. I take a deep breath, filling my lungs to capacity. Then I swipe open the call.
“Hey,” I answer meekly. My voice catches.
“I love you so much, brother,” she replies, the sound of tears welling up in her throat.
“I love you too, baby girl,” and the flood gates are open. “I love you so much.”
I inhale deeply. An abundance of air is a new phenomenon. I exhale.
We are going to be okay.