Sunday, May 18, 2014

From Left to Write: Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

My sister was born when I was 11 years old. We didn't know it then but her brain had been damaged, she had dyslexia, she was autistic, and had a worse case of eczema than I ever did. As a baby it was almost a full time job to keep her from scratching off all her skin. Sometimes we failed and went to the ER over raw and bloody knees. They didn't know about her other problems yet, you see, so we were told when as she got older (and more self aware) things would get easier.

She was not a planned pregnancy. My parents fought constantly, in short because my dad's a sociopath. When they fought I would pick my sister up, hold her, and tell her she was loved. It wasn't her fault. She was safe.

Three years later our old sister ran away under the influence of her emotionally abusive boyfriend-now-husband. That just added additional stress to family life and I felt even more responsible for my little sister. By now we were starting to notice developmental problems, although I can't remember if she was in speech and occupational therapy yet. I was beginning to feel motherly instincts, in fact taking care of my sister is what made me want to be a mother someday. I would take her for walks in her stroller sometimes and once someone asked if I was her mother. I was a bit appalled seeing as I was 14 and not even interested in boys, but that moment has stuck with me all these years.

Jump another three years and my parents are finally getting divorced. My sister has started school and things are not going so well. My mother had been a SAHM pretty much my whole life, but would be returning to work now that my dad was gone. Over the next year or two we'd try different things as far as child care went. Sometimes I would watch her after school or on weekends if my mom had to work, sometimes she would go to the Boys and Girls Club, sometimes she would go to other after school programs.

Eventually it became my job to watch her, and I mean that literally. I became certified through DCF as a home daycare able to watch up to three children, and because we were poor my mom got a voucher to pay for part of my sister's daycare costs. Basically the state paid me to watch my sister. I'm sure that sounds silly or even fraudulent to some people, but remember my sister has special needs. Me watching her is what we deemed best for her and for us. I couldn't work and watch her so it all worked out. This only lasted a couple years, though I've been my mom's primary back-up ever since.

Soon we realized traditional public school was not working for my sister. She couldn't read. She had an IEP and was continuing therapy but there wasn't much else the school could do. She was held back in first grade but we were told they couldn't keep her there forever. She was going to be passed through the grades until she "graduated" whether she could read or not. So my mom made the decision to home school her.

Thankfully it's worked out quite well. She's not homeschooled in a traditional sense with workbooks and such. I think the term most often used in unschooled. For my sister to learn something she has to care about it. You can go over the revolutionary war a million times, but until she cares about it she won't remember. So sometimes they go on trips to places were things happened. They find a book series she loves and she has slowly learned to read thanks to Percy Jackson. She's still not on grade level but she can get by. She learns math through video games. If she wants to buy this mount and she has this much gold, how much more does she need? If she can earn this much gold through this activity everyday, how many days will it take to earn enough for the mount? It's not calculus but it's enough to get by.

I'm really proud of how far she's come despite her limitations. I'm glad I could be a part of it. She's much more independent now, but we're still closer than I think we would be if I hadn't been such a big part of her life growing up. I don't resent her for needing me, for taking away some of my youth. I'm thankful we got to spend that time together. Don't get me wrong, like all little siblings sometimes she's annoying and needy and wants me to do things for her that I know she can do herself. I didn't always want to be responsible for her, sometimes I just wanted some time away. But I love her and I will always cherish being her big sister.

This post was inspired by Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, a novel that exposes the gothic underbelly of an American dynasty, and an outsider’s hunger to belong. Join From Left to Write on May 20 we discuss Bittersweet. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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