My mom had 3 kids in 4 years.
Our closeness in age did not make for conflict-free sibling relationships, but did steep us in a family culture that decades later I can't describe adequately but I can conjure up in an instant by remembering a song, a smell, the sound of the squeaky manual pencil sharpener mounted on the side of our kitchen cabinet, or the crusty feel of not-very-clean shag carpet under my feet.
Much of the time I thought of my brother and sister as my adversaries, conspiring somehow to take what was rightfully mine and rob me of my much deserved joy. Yes, I was a dramatic child.
But I loved that I always had siblings around testing the waters, just ahead of me in school and life. My feather-haired, smart-alecky sister an 8th grader to my 7th, or my good-natured, good-old-boy of a brother who was a senior in high school when I was a freshman.
Sure, they never wanted to let me ride along in their friends's cars to school, so I took the bus a lot. Mom had to listen to my whine-filled reasoning, "but we're all going the the same exact place!" Occasionally, she would force them to include me, but sitting in the back of a 70's panel truck with my brother and his friends, or in a Datsun with a bunch of older girls as they pulled into 7-11 on an early morning Diet Coke run didn't feel as great as it would have had I been included on my own (feeble) merits.
But even when I didn't belong, I knew I belonged to something. We were the Whiston kids. We were family. I knew if I needed something, my brother or sister would defend me-- would "have my back"-- even though we didn't know the phrase back then.
And as I remember being excited and intrigued as my brother got his first "girlfriend" in 6th grade, watching him play football in the high school stadium on hormone-charged, electric fall nights, or swapping Forenza sweaters with my sister and her cool friends, I realize more than ever, how much Margaret has lost in losing Jack.
For Margaret and Jack were as close as any brother and sister I have known. They had their own language. Private jokes. Each spring when the school yearbook came out, they would stretch out on the floor, heads together, dissecting it page by page, photo by photo, no teacher or student left undiscussed. In school, we knew whatever projects Jack did, or books he read, Margaret would encounter a short two years later, probably with much less complaining. Jack knew he was, to use his words, "The Practice Child," as we tried to figure out how to draw boundaries and parent through any particular stage. He blazed the trail, and Margaret followed.
I counted on Jack figuring out middle school first. Then high school. I wanted his friends to come over and hang out around our kitchen table, the same table where my brother and his friends attempted to eat spaghetti through their noses more than 25 years ago. I knew that if Margaret would get used to having boys around, she would see them as a cadre of protective older brothers-- not just as conquests or conquerors-- but people.
You see, my brother and his friends were the ones who vetted my dates. They were the ones who showed me that guys were not some rare, exotic species that I needed to put on a pedestal or work too hard to impress. Instead, they hung out at our house. They played games. They made me laugh. They sat on a stool in our kitchen as my mom cut their hair. I counted on this same easy familiarity being one of the many benefits Margaret would experience by having Jack for an older brother. Jack could help de-mystify boys for her, just as my brother did for me.
Plus, I wanted Jack and Margaret to keep sharing secrets and experiences, because unlike friends, siblings know how far is too far afield from a family's culture and values. They know a family belongs together. I pictured funny, yet fundamentally straight-laced Jack being the cute older brother driving Margaret and her friends to youth group on Sunday nights. I wanted him to be the brother who knew, even if it meant cutting his own fun short, that he needed to get his little sister out of there if a high school party got dicey.
I wanted. I wanted. I wanted.
Yes, the loss of 12 year old Jack is painful and devastating, particularly when thinking of how much his lttle sister misses him today. But the Jack I'm mourning today is 17 year old Jack for 15 year old Margaret.