By Lea Page
I click on the YouTube link that my stepsister Sally just sent me—she hasn’t labeled it— ready to see another video of her playing her banjo on yet another stage. I click on the YouTube link, ready to feel the same jealousy that I always feel every time I see my stepsister acting the part of middle daughter, acting MY part as middle daughter. Forty years ago, when I was eleven, my father traded my mother and my two sisters and me for another woman with three daughters our age. A clean swap. Ever since, I’ve always hated to see Sally doing what I should have done: being creative, being successful, being happy.
In the video, my father is lying on his sofa in jeans, turtleneck and flannel shirt, one arm crooked under his head. He looks a little green around the gills and shrunken, shockingly shrunken. Last week, in the middle of a perfect storm of procedures and surgeries, infections and dueling medications, my father was sent home from the hospital.
Home for him is a tiny garage that he and my stepmother had renovated with their artistic flare. An orange art-deco refrigerator presides over the galley kitchen. The floors are covered with dusty oriental rugs. The walls are crowded with paintings (his own among them) and photographs (some are my step-mother’s—she is a photographer), and the furniture is draped with six live dogs, one the size of a small horse, all of whom share the tiny living space.
The video opens with Sally, in one of her thrift-store sweatshirts, sitting on the edge of the sofa, guffawing as usual at her own wisecracks. In a throaty voice, she announces to the camera that she is now going to give Jake his shot, as if she were announcing that she was about to play her latest new song for an audience.
I know my way around needles. When I lived in Montana, I learned to give my horse Zeke his vaccinations. I’d swab his neck with alcohol, then hold up the syringe and flick it to let the air bubbles rise. A tiny squeeze of the plunger and a drop of medicine would emerge at the end of the needle. With the heel of my free hand, I’d tap Zeke’s neck firmly: one, two, and on three, I’d substitute the needle, poking it through the tougher skin into the less resistant flesh, and then I’d slowly press the plunger down. Zeke always stood still for this. Pulling the needle out without causing a flinch was harder. Once it was pierced, the flesh was reluctant to let go.
My father lifts his shirt a little, exposing a skinny tummy that is still yellow and bruised from surgery.
Sally swabs his stomach with gauze and then uncaps an enormous syringe. She lifts the syringe and flicks it with a finger, her warm laugh bubbling up along with a drop of medicine. She turns from the camera and asks him if he is ready.
Before I hear an answer—No, I’m not ready, I murmur—she says, “HEYa hey,” and slips the needle into his stomach.
My father’s smile hardens, and Sally continues to croon, “HEYa, HEYa.”
Horror—Jesus God, how long will it take?—competes with the ridiculous.
My throat tightens, and I cover my mouth with my hand, and still she is singing, “HIYa, hey, HIYa, ho.”
As she slowly depresses the plunger, I breathe out, long, longer, as long as she sings, and then the needle is out, and she presses a pad to my father’s stomach. She pulls his shirt down and mugs for the camera.
All done, and I breathe in, and Sally laughs, and my father’s grimace morphs back to a relieved smile. Tears wash over my hand, which is in a fist now, still covering my mouth.
My mother trained my two sisters and me to hate our replacements. We have been schooled in bitterness. But I couldn’t have pushed that needle into my father’s stomach. I couldn’t have stuck a needle in his stomach and laughed and sang at the same time. In this moment, I am only grateful that Sally could. And while gratitude holds the door ajar, a wisp of forgiveness slips into my heart.
Do I forgive my father for leaving me? For replacing me?
I forgive Sally. I forgive her for taking my place. I forgive her for being the daughter who was there, for being the daughter who has brought my father joy and laughter. For being the daughter who loves my father and is loved by him.