“Abigail” by Kate Supino was chosen as Week One’s winner in CLP’s Breast Cancer Awareness story contest. For more details on the contest and how to submit your stories, please visit the original post.
by Kate Supino
My sister Abigail kept her long chestnut hair in a braid running down over the curves of her back like an Indian trail weaving through the Rocky Mountains. Her teenage boyfriends must have fantasized about untwisting that long braid, pulling loose the bow at the end, tousling her hair through their fingertips and letting it run wild like a creeper vine all over her back and shoulders. But it was me who was allowed to pull the braid loose at night while Abigail sat on the fluffy, pink-cushioned brass stool at her vanity table, smearing thick white cream all over her face, removing the rouge from her alabaster skin. It was me who ran my hands, dirty fingernails and all, through those tendrils and brushed them tame.
If I wanted, and she was in the mood, Abigail let me put squishy pink rollers at the ends of her hair; rolled out, she taught me, that was the vogue look. Her head when I was finished looked like a cotton candy colored carnival ride. Then she would actually sleep like that. When I asked, amazed, if the rollers hurt when she lay her head down on her pillow, she’d look me straight in the eye and repeat the same phrase she’d heard our mother say. ”There is no great beauty without great pain.” Then Abigail would lie her head down gracefully, sigh like a beautiful suffering maiden, and ask me to turn out the light.
We were as different as night and day. We went to different primary schools because mother was a Catholic and father was a Protestant. When they had Abigail they disagreed about whether she would attend the Catholic school, St. Augustine’s, or Reed Avenue public school. That was before I was born. But when I came along, they decided to compromise. Abigail was sent off to Reed Avenue. I was destined to kneel on the hard painted cement floors of St. Augustine’s while the nuns walked through with their hands behind their backs and inspected our navy blue uniform skirts to make sure they were long enough to skim the floor.
Abigail pranced around the kitchen at home (she really did prance) in her cute public school outfits; swingy pleated skirts, fuzzy soft sweaters that fit over her growing bosom in pastel pinks, greens, purples, until mother would finally order Abigail to put down her after-school snack and go change out of her good school clothes, ”Now!”
I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out of my uniform. I ran for my closet first thing when I got home, impatiently unbuttoning my stodgy round-collared blouse the minute I came through the door. My ”everyday” clothes weren’t really my own, but I liked the feeling I got from wearing Abigail’s hand-me-downs. As though some of her magic would rub off on me.
Beautiful Abigail. By the time I became old enough to attend the same high school, Abigail was already settled in. She had a group of girlfriends I didn’t know, a locker emblazoned with her name across the front in gold glitter, a personal fan club of boys, and a slew of extracurricular activities. These after-school activities sometimes provided a cover for clandestine meetings with a certain boy in the school parking lot. She might tell our parents she had a track meeting after school but I knew when Abigail was really going to meet a boy. She and I both knew that I would never spill her secret. Abigail met boys as much for my sake as she did for her own, she told me. ”See, because I’m older, I have to sacrifice myself,” she explained. “I have to be like a scout and find out what boys are like so we can both learn. That way, you won’t have to make any mistakes. I’ll make them for you.”
My sister, my pioneer. I couldn’t wait until she got home from one of these dalliances. She would go to her room and shut the door and I’d follow shortly behind her, knocking politely until she’d given the requisite, ”Come in.” Abigail insisted on little etiquettes like these. She was easily offended by bad manners. At the dinner table, it was more likely Abigail than my mother who would tell me to take my elbows off the table. She used to say it was the Libra in her. Even at such a young age, she was so… refined. I would take my shoes off and lay on the foot of her bed and she would answer anything I asked about her dates. But that was it. The rule was clear. She would answer anything I asked, but she wouldn’t volunteer any information. That way, she reasoned, she wouldn’t be teaching me anything that I wasn’t ready for. She figured if I was old enough to ask the question, I was old enough to hear the answer. Good old Abigail. She was always thinking of my welfare.
Eventually I became bold enough to ask questions that I’d wanted to ask earlier, but had been too shy to say the words out loud. Anyway, it was Abigail who taught me all about sex, and you always owe a lot to the person who teaches you about sex. Especially when they don’t laugh when you look too shocked afterward.
On Sunday afternoons, we would all visit my grandmother where she still lived on the farm where she was raised. Spread out behind the farmhouse was a field which, at a certain special time of the year, waved with thousands of buttercups. After the hugs hello and a snack of milk and warm biscuits, Abigail and I would pretend we were Mary and Laura Ingalls and race out of the house and through the blossoming meadow, holding hands laughing and singing the theme from “Little House on the Prairie” with “la-las”. I can still picture those warm summer afternoons with Abigail sitting prettily in the
buttercup meadow behind our grandmother’s house, the sun turning her eyes sparkling green. In my memory, I see us as we were then. Two little girls dressed in Sunday’s best, socks and shoes thrown off, lying on our backs and whispering our wishes up to clouds shaped like castles in the sky.
We were terrible gossips, chit-chatting on those lazy afternoons in the sunshine. Even the parents of schoolmates were not safe from our sharp judgment. Abigail’s favorite adjective one particular summer was scandalous. Everything was ‘scandalous’. Mary Watson’s new hairdo, Mrs. Eckel’s new dress; Scandalous. The next summer Abigail would have a new word to practice; something she had carefully chosen from the worn thin tissue pages of the used thesaurus that she had stolen from the school library and kept hidden under her bed.
Many nights she would pull out that thesaurus and read from wherever it opened, studying the words and their synonyms. She told me that she was preparing herself for her “better life,” the one she would lead after a wealthy prince discovered her some day. This quirky habit of hers improved her vocabulary dramatically. For example, she was more apt to say, “My nocturnal visions were particularly vibrant last evening,” instead of ‘I had a neat dream last night.’ Abigail spoke so exotically, at least in my young estimation, that I had no doubt someday her prince really would come.
I’ll always regret not being able to help her years later when Abigail needed me. She was always there for me growing up. Going with me to pick out my first bra; guiding me along her bedroom floor in her arms so I would know how to dance. ”It is essential,” she told me, ”for a young lady to know how to waltz properly.” To this day I’ve never needed to waltz in public, but occasionally I go through the steps at home in my stocking feet so I don’t forget. Just in case. Abigail was usually right about those kinds of things.
Abigail had a curious way of blocking out the ugliness in life. Of simply forgetting the things that she wanted to forget. One time I remember Abigail and our father had a terrible fight. He got it into his head that Abigail had cigarettes hidden in her room. We came home one afternoon to find that he had, in a drunken fit, torn her room apart searching for the cigarettes that didn’t even exist. Our father didn’t realize it, but Abigail would never smoke. She always said it was a nasty smelly habit. He didn’t know who she was.
Our dad was out of his mind with anger over these imagined cigarettes. Her normally tidy bed was strewn with the contents of her room; her makeup was broken and tossed in the wastebasket, and sheets and sheets of her poetry lay torn in tatters, all over the floor. There was a huge argument that ended with her locked in her room and, through the wall between our bedrooms, I could hear her crying softly the whole night long. I wanted to go in and put my arms around her, lean her head on my shoulder, be her big sister, but I was forbidden to talk to her that night, and I suffered just being kept from her. It was a
horrible, hateful night and we both had swollen red eyes the next morning.
Oddly, though, when I mentioned the incident to her about a month later, she looked at me vacantly and swore she had no memory of that night. It was as though she had successfully distanced herself from it, as though the whole thing had happened to some other girl, some other Abigail. She never wanted to believe that anything bad could ever happen to anyone.
As the years went by, we weren’t able to be as close. Abigail went away to university and became the quintessential college student. She earned stellar grades in each of her classes. She seemed determined to become the most perfect version of herself possible. Excellence and truth were her goals in all that she pursued. Literally, she made this her motto. In fact, to remind herself daily of this promise to herself, she had even created and printed a poster for her dorm room with those exact words printed on it, all in caps: “EXCELLENCE AND TRUTH ARE MY GOALS IN ALL THAT I PURSUE.” Knowing Abigail like I did, I figured what she was pursuing was that future prince.
On the other hand, I enrolled myself in a local liberal arts college and squeaked by in most of my classes. I was fascinated with the diversity of people and ideas. Unfortunately, I was more interested in whiling away the early morning hours sitting on the floors of the dormitory hallways and philosophizing with fellow slackers than fidgeting in a lecture hall and scribbling notes that I knew I would never look at again. Though I intellectually rationalized to myself that I was getting a terrific education in the real world by having authentic conversation which led to independent thought, my grades reflected a lack of seriousness and discipline in my schedule.
Pretty soon, I got: The Call. Not from our parents. My father had since died from an icy fall from a ladder while installing the outside Christmas lights one winter. Ironically, it was almost one year to the day after he’d quit drinking. Our mother’s therapist had advised her that she should be more selfish with her time. Mother took this to heart and had become increasingly uninterested in the doings of her daughters. On a positive note, she became an expert sketch artist, and even once mailed me a really good sketch she had done of an old baby picture of Abigail and me playing in our wading pool.
No, the call I received at my college dorm, in the hallway, on the public telephone, was from Abigail. This was far worse than any conversation any other undergraduate would have had with their disapproving parents, because Abigail had no motivation to go easy on me. Hers was a demanding and loyal sisterly love, with the emphasis on loyal. She was trying to rise above, and she wasn’t going to leave me behind, no matter how tightly she had to hold my sweaty, unsteady hand.
According to Abigail, I had severely disappointed her, and my life was going to hell in a hand basket, and fast. She said I’d better shape up and do the work, or I would find myself married to a loser like our dad (her words, not mine), with no career and no prospects, and wondering where it had all gone
wrong. From now on, she said, I was to call her weekly with updates on my academic progress. And there had better be progress, she warned, not failure, or there would be ramifications. Seriously, she said ramifications. That was Abigail. She was all about crime and punishment. And in those days, in her mind, I was the criminal.
I was nothing if not obedient, so I did what I was told. Abigail overnighted me a second copy she had printed up of her “EXCELLENCE AND TRUTH ARE MY GOALS IN ALL THAT I PURSUE” poster, which I promptly folded up and hid so my roommate wouldn’t see it. I began making weekly, Sunday night phone calls to Abigail’s dorm room.
At first, I was feeding her lines, not to put too fine a point on it. I had made absolutely no change in my personal commitment to my studies, as Abigail had so aptly pronounced the need. Lying was never an ethical problem for me at that age, and as we were only communicating by phone, Abigail couldn’t see the tiny twitch in my left eye that always gave me away in person. I made up fictitious tests with equally fictitious grades and she believed every word of. I preened inwardly at how clever I was.
But then something shifted in my psyche. It began with Abigail, and that happy, fantasy world she lived in. She actually believed I could change just like that, with a snap of her fingers. And when I lied about how much my grades had suddenly improved since I’d been really hitting the books, I detected that her voice became saturated with relief. I could feel it ebbing out of her over the phone line. Not joy. Relief.
This realization shocked me to my core and produced in me a rising guilt like I had never known before. This was not what I expected. I had tricked Abigail, betrayed her trust, and I didn’t like the feeling at all. It was worse because I realized this was something new for her. She was actually counting on me. She was relying on me to keep my promise to her, and I happened to know that Abigail had made it a personal policy to never rely on anyone.
I sensed that, for reasons completely beyond my comprehension, Abigail really needed me to succeed in this undertaking. How could anything I did or didn’t do, possibly affect Abigail? I thought. But she had somehow connected me to her own personal identity. Childishly, I privately brooded about it. I resented it and I resented her, for making me feel guilty about failing out of school, about lying to her.
Finally, though, I shook myself off and grew up a little. All those years of Abigail’s training me to take care of myself enabled me to kick myself into high gear with a singular, all-consuming desire not to disappoint Abigail. Without even recognizing the value it held for me, I changed my own tune for the sake of my sister. Two years later and many Sunday night phone calls later, my mother and Abigail sat in the audience and watched as I graduated with honors. As I had my moment on the stage, I turned into the audience and for a quick instant our eyes met. I smiled and raised my arm slightly and held up my
diploma. I knew I had not accomplished this alone.
Years passed and we lived and breathed our adult lives as people do. We busied ourselves with our jobs, our separate inner circles of friends, errands and hobbies. Abigail’s existence became for me a swirling planet outside my immediate life, yet nonetheless integral to my own tiny planet’s ability to maintain its orbit. An existence viewed from afar, but symbiotically connected to me.
We tried unsuccessfully to get together on hundreds of occasions, but our “catching-up” was always over the phone, for lack of time. If I hadn’t been so absorbed in my own busy schedule, I might have noticed that usually the excuses came from Abigail’s end, not mine. But I thought nothing of it. Many times, I have to admit, I was relieved when she backed out of plans, claiming tiredness or busyness. I had so many things I wanted to do, I was selfish with the rare free time that I did have.
Abigail eventually got her prince charming. She had met Marvin at college. They stayed in touch through their early career moves, and he eventually won her over with his constancy and steadfastness. I had met Marvin during a visit once to Abigail’s college, and even then I could tell that he was a sweetheart of a man possessing intelligence and ethics to boot. I saw through him and knew he had his sights set on Abigail, but during those college years her focus was not on her own love life. It might have even been on me and my poor grades at the time.
Once she opened the window, however, Abigail basked in his love. After their courtship formally began, they were so committed to one another that the wedding itself seemed redundant. They were married in a small outside ceremony with only close family members attending.
Marvin adored Abigail and usually went the extra mile to make her happy. When she wished for a sewing room in their new house, he helped set up the extra bedroom in their house with all that she needed, and even went out and purchased a brand new sewing machine for her, with the caveat that if it wasn’t what she wanted, he would bring her to the stores and they wouldn’t stop until they found exactly the perfect one. This from a man who hates shopping.
Abigail told me later she felt so guilty because she actually ended up doing very little sewing. She was just so darned tired in the evenings, she said.
I said, “I know what you mean. Aren’t we all?”
It didn’t matter how much she used her sewing room. Nothing Abigail did or didn’t do seemed to make Marvin upset with her. His capacity for understanding and his willingness to forgive were traits completely foreign to Abigail’s ‘crime and punishment’ way of thinking, and she was always harder on herself than he could ever imagine being. If she couldn’t finish all the items on her ‘to-do’ list, for example, she felt frustrated. Marvin would just set the list aside and remind her that tomorrow is another
I finally noticed–we all did–that Abigail seemed to have less and less energy, compelling her to call in sick to work and forcing her into her bed more and more frequently. She brushed it off, but eventually even Abigail had to admit that she was no longer able to take care of mundane tasks, let alone the house. Quietly, hesitantly, she confessed her secret. A secret she had been pretending to herself for a very long time didn’t exist. It was hard for her to say the words aloud, and Marvin had to coax them out of her. Saying them made it real, she pleaded. She had found a lump, she told him. It had been a long time ago, but she had pretended it wasn’t there, hoped it would go away by itself. This was the first time Marvin became angry with her, and the only time that Abigail felt that his anger was undeserved.
Abigail had been so afraid, I just couldn’t blame her. Afraid that they would take away her femininity. That they would mutilate her. Even in the end, she asked me to bring her things; her hairbrush, her makeup, perfume. I told her that she was allowed to be ugly in the hospital, it was her God-given right, but I think she honestly believed no one would love her if she wasn’t beautiful.
I insisted on being the one to brush Abigail’s hair for the service, though I mourned for my dear, sweet Abigail. I slowly ran my fingers, nails polished and manicured, through her soft brown hair and brushed it tame.
In that moment, I paused. Looking down at her tender lifeless face, a lead-weighted heaviness deep inside my chest threatened to suffocate me. I closed my eyes, and I prayed to God to let me trade places with her. A life for a life, I begged silently. But in the very moment that my silent plea was formed, I felt his answer, and I couldn’t prevent a deep groan escaping from the heavy weight inside. I struggled to see through my tear-blinded eyes. In the end, I lost the fight to push down the tidal uprising of my grief. For a long time in that room, I just sat on the floor and cried, unable to stop.
For a long time now, I miss her. Time sometimes passes slowly. But it does pass.
Three years later I found my own prince of a man. Though they never met, he says he feels like he knows my sister Abigail through the stories I’ve told him about her. When I asked to name our new baby girl Abigail, he said he would have it no other way.
Someday, when my Abigail is older, I’m going to teach her to waltz. I’ve been told that it is essential for a young lady to know how to waltz properly.
A few weeks ago, I posted an article outlining a few ideas I had for October- which is Breast Cancer Awareness month. I had some great feedback from that original article, so I am going to move forward with my plans. Big thanks to everyone who emailed me with their ideas and support!
First, I have posted a donate button on Chick Lit Plus through PayPal. I will be taking donations all throughout October that will go towards the Susan G. Komen organization. Second, I will personally be donating $1 for every review that is posted during the month of October for the Chick Lit Reading Challenge. And third, I am going to be running a month long contest that will feature your stories. I am looking for submissions that talk about your experiences with breast cancer. This is pretty open topic that can range from if you had breast cancer, a family member or a friend had cancer, what you do to support and find a cause, how you raise awareness, etc. This will be based on how many submissions I get, but I would like to choose a winning story each week. That story will be published on Chick Lit Plus, the weekly winners will be able to choose a book from my personal bookshelf that I will send to them, and each winner will be entered into a drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card. At the end of the month, I will write an article that will feature snippets from each story that was submitted.
So that is my plan for October! Please help spread the word about the submissions to your friends, families, and followers. I’m hoping we can get some inspiring stories that come in and I’m looking forward to October and doing my part. I will be posting a Call for Submissions post shortly with more information on the articles. Thanks again to everyone who gave their ideas and feedbacks!