I was twenty-one. I was twenty-one and locked in a bathroom in the Vancouver International Airport. I was twenty-one and locked in a bathroom in the Vancouver International Airport and holding a hand-crocheted blanket to my chest and crying as if someone had died.
Deborah was going away for a year. Just a year. Three hundred and sixty five days are not that much for sisters who have known each other for nineteen years and seven months. But I was locked in a bathroom stall and crying as if someone had died.
She was a first-day of July baby. I was a last-day of February baby. She pulled funny faces in photos from the ripe old comedic age of two or grinned wildly as if she had a gleeful secret. I – the eldest child – tended to stand with my feet together, my hands together, the corners of my mouth turned up, my eyes trained dutifully at the center of the camera. Veronica-and-Deborah. Veronica-and-Deborah.
There was a small gap. And then Rose-and-Joy. Later there would be Stephanie. Later there would be Heather. We were a crew. A gang. A formidable fortress of sisters, skinny arms-around-shoulders, against the challenges of time and change, and the tests of growing up with an overflow of ideals and faith and heart.
But before there was Rose-and-Joy, Stephanie and Heather, there was Veronica-and-Deborah. We had a few matching clothes, others that were just our own. I seem to remember Deborah getting the pink, I getting the blue. I’m not certain this is accurate: more likely it is the essence of her curls I’m remembering in the assignment of those colours. Those fly-away, light blonde curls. My darker hair hung seriously about my face in a glossy but unromantic bowl cut.
I was twenty-one and remembering the way your hair stuck to everything with its own static electricity when you were three. Crying as if someone had died.
You had always been with me. Every move, every trip. Until I left the north for university three months before. Until three months before your flight to Romania out of the Vancouver International Airport, you had always been with me.
We sat in the car with our feet barely dangling off the seat when we moved to the property in northern Ontario. It’s one of the first memories I have. Grey light – or is that simply the dusky quality of memory? The feeling of Deborah’s presence on the other side of the back seat, the outline of her out of the corner of my eye as I watched trees slide by the window. Buckled in, moving homes for the first time I could remember. Dad was talking about how the woman who sold us the trailer and the property had left her possessions behind. I thought about a woman leaving important things behind. I thought of a woman leaving her broom and dustpan behind and flying away without them, like an illustration from a children’s book, up and away against the grey trees, like the feeling of motion in the car. I was three. Deborah was there.
A few years later, I rushed through a new house in the city, running just ahead of Deb, running to the back door to look out. The sliding glass door, so exciting in its modernity, an emblem of our new suburban life: sliding doors, paved driveway. I got there ahead of her and stopped short. I felt as if the fence had just jumped up and hit me. Just jumped up. It was supposed to be much further back than that. Really? I pressed my forehead to the glass and cocked my head, perplexed, studying the back yard. I had never had a fence before. Deb arrived at my side, panting, collapsed against the glass and grinned at me. I was six. Deborah was there.
I hid in the cubby hole under the stairs when they called me to leave that house. I swung myself up on the coat bar and scrambled onto the massive plywood shelf that housed a pile of sleeping bags and foam rolls for camping trips. They hadn’t packed those yet. I burrowed into the back, against the wall, curled up into a similar shape, and ignored their calls for as long as my conscience would let me. Then I jumped out, dashed up the stairs, through the first floor as fast as possible and out the door, pausing only to glimpse my hand letting go of the wrought iron railing of the front steps. I slid into the back of the station wagon without looking at anyone. I could sense Deborah turn her head to look over at me. She swung her legs, said nothing. I was eleven. Deborah was there.
We drove across Canada. We drove into a northern, rural life much different than anything I could have expected. Adolescence hit with a fury. Life hit with a fury. I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Deborah was there.
She made me country music mix tapes full of host’s half-comments, hastily cut off with the noisy click of her tape recorder. She helped me rig a yarn and string system to keep our door – which had no doorknob – securely shut against our hapless younger sisters. She taught me how to rip the screen off our log cabin’s second-storey bedroom window, climb to the ground for a midnight stroll to see the northern lights – and how to plausibly blame the screen damage on the farm cat.
She was the only one crazy enough to dump a bottle of peroxide over her head to dye her hair when no hair dye was to be had. She decided to wear all black for a short period of time. She didn’t seem to give a damn what boys thought about her, but they were mysteriously in awe of her anyway. She did chores I couldn’t stand – tossing squawking, dirty, wildly flapping chickens out of the way nonchalantly to gather eggs one day, nursing their self-inflicted pecking wounds with iodine and astounding compassion the next.
We road-tripped the lower forty-eight with a friend when I was sixteen. I was awkward, out of place in the world, in each state, in every restaurant and hotel. Deborah seemed to float above it all, confident, calm. She became sick somewhere in Louisiana. She was bad about drinking water, bad about eating anything, pale and listless and stubborn. I bought cough syrup, turned down otherwise uninviting hotel beds, scanned southern menus for non-greasy fare, bullied her about water bottles and bowls of soup. I was needed. I was fine. I belonged. Deborah was there.
I was twenty-one and locked in a bathroom at the Vancouver International Airport and the sobs were beginning to subside. I looked at the blanket she had crocheted me: blue and cream and brown. I ran my fingers over the rows of connected stitches. Three hundred and sixty five days. I could feel life changing, pulling us into different lives, different directions. I ran my fingers over the stitches. “For your bed,” she had said simply. Deborah always said things simply.
I went back to my dorm room, moved the English literature books to the floor, tossed the blanket unfolding like a canopy over the bed, tucked it in. A deep breath, a brush of the hand on the bed, and I placed my books back on it. My notebook, my backpack. I was twenty-one. I could be strong. Deborah was there.