Part 1: Jenna
My sister had always been the strong one. I looked at her next to me in the limo from the corner of my eye, but the truth was that I didn’t need to look at her to know her expression – her face was as familiar to me as my own. Her eyes are brown, like mine, but hers are several shades darker, so dark that sometimes I can’t see her pupils. Right now, her gaze was out the window, not moving, not wanting to look at anyone or anything inside the limo – namely, me. Her hair is mine, too, chestnut brown, but unlike me she’s never dyed her hair or added highlights to it, and right now it’s pulled into a low bun at the base of her neck. Her face was placid, expressionless, her mouth in a grim line. She wore no makeup and no jewelry, just a long black skirt and a black blouse buttoned all the way to the top, the definition of appropriate modesty. That morning, I’d asked her what she thought I should wear to the funeral, because I’d never been to one before. “I don’t know, Jen,” she’d said, sounding tired and annoyed. “Just wear black. Or something dark.” I waited for her to lecture me about not wearing anything too tight or short, but the lecture never came, she just continued dressing herself, and I watched her in the mirror as she buttoned her shirt. I could tell from the look in her eyes that she was looking at herself, but not seeing. She looked beyond herself, going through the motions, getting through it.
Everyone knew that I had been our mother’s favorite. I had the interesting, fun life that she loved hearing about. I was in my first year of college, and I’d intentionally picked a school close to home so that I could visit every weekend and tell my mom everything. I told her about my classes and homework and my friends and parties I went to and boys I met and dates I went on. Our routine was that I’d go home every Saturday morning, and my mom would make a pot of coffee for us, and we’d sit together and I’d tell her everything about my life. If it was spring or summer, we’d sit on the porch. In the cold months, she’d make a fire in the living room fireplace. And when she got sick, I’d go to her bedroom and sit by her bed so she could rest while I talked to her.
Cancer stole her from us quickly. I’d tried to be strong like Bethany, but the truth was that my mom and I spent a lot of time crying together. She didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want her to die. Life without her felt unfathomable, but here we were, existing without her soul in the world.
I wanted to reach over and hold Bethany’s hand, wanting to comfort her but also wanting her to comfort me, but I refrained, keeping my hands in my lap. I tried to mirror her expression, her posture: sitting straight up in her seat, eyes out the window. Before I knew what was happening, we were at the funeral home. Later, when I let myself think about the day, my memories are blurry because my eyes were so constantly filled with tears, and I was exhausted from holding them back and trying not to cry. Bethany remained stone faced, but we avoided each other’s eyes.
Later, back at our house, dozens of friends and family members gathered. It seemed like everyone had brought a casserole dish of something – mac and cheese, meatballs with sauce, baked ziti. People were constantly coming up to me and Bethany, hugging us or touching our shoulders, telling us what an amazing person our mom had been as if we didn’t know. Most people were kind, but others lacked tact. “Jenna, you must be the prettiest girl in the whole family,” said one distant aunt or cousin to me, loud enough for Bethany to hear across the room. She glared at us.
When everyone finally left, it was just Bethany and I alone in the house we grew up in. I shut the front door quietly behind the last guest and looked around. Bethany was nowhere in sight. The house wasn’t particularly large, but in that moment, it felt huge without our mother’s presence.
Bethany and I weren’t used to being alone together. Even as kids, we hadn’t spent a lot of time playing together. She was five years older than me, which didn’t sound like much, but because Bethany and I were so different in personality, it felt like more. I had the strange urge to hide from her. I could feel her hurt and anger from wherever she was, but I knew she’d never say anything or bring it up. I decided to hide in our mom’s room, hoping being there would give me comfort.
Our mom’s room was exactly as she left it. Neither Bethany or I had touched or moved anything. The blankets on the bed were still slightly rumpled, and I could see the slight indent in the bed where she’d laid for all of those weeks when she was bedridden and not strong enough to get up and move around. I touched the space where her body had been and stood there by her bed for a long moment. Then I pulled a pair of pajamas out from her dresser and went into her bathroom. I scrubbed off all of my makeup. The face cloth I used turned the color of my skin as I wiped off my foundation and concealer. I’d worn waterproof mascara, and it was so caked to my eyelashes that I couldn’t get it off, and I gave up after wiping my eyes for what felt like hours.
I climbed into my mom’s bed and laid in her spot, trying to feel like she was still there. I turned on the TV, but kept the volume low. I tried to find something boring to watch that would put me to sleep. I found an old episode of Law & Order and decided that would do. I closed my eyes and tried to relax my body and mind. I was more exhausted than I thought, because it was only a few minutes before I began to drift off.
I woke several minutes later when the bedroom door opened. Bethany came in, fully dressed. She’d changed out of her black skirt and wore a pair of dark jeans now. She had her coat on and her backpack in her hand. “I’m leaving,” she said.
I sat up. “Where are you going?” I was disoriented, still half in the world of sleep where nothing ever hurt.
“Back to school.” She hoisted her backpack onto her shoulder.
I stared at her for a moment, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking down at her phone. “Why?” I choked out. I couldn’t believe that she was going to leave now. “Mom’s funeral was today,” I said, like she didn’t already know that.
“I have exams this week,” she said simply, her eyes still on her phone.
Of course she’d use school as her excuse to escape. It’s what she always did. She didn’t go to a single high school party or school dance, always claiming that she needed to study. She’d stacked her high school course load with Honors classes and AP classes and operated under the firm belief that anything less than an A was unacceptable. Doing things like going to the mall or movies with friends was frivolous and pointless to Bethany. Everything outside of school was merely a distraction. And I couldn’t say that it hadn’t paid off – Bethany had gone to college on a full scholarship, where I assume she’d continued to maintain her laser focus on school and her grades because she’d gotten into Yale Law School, which was she was heading back to now.
I wanted her to stay. I wanted her to be my big sister, to lay in our mother’s bed next to me while we watched dumb TV shows. She was all I had now. Our father disappeared when we were kids. I didn’t even remember what he looked like. My sister was my only family now, but there was a rift between us that I wasn’t sure we could ever cross.
Part 2: Bethany
On the day of my mother’s funeral, I decided to ignore my sister. The constant rejection I’d felt from them during my childhood was enough. I wasn’t going to deal with it today. They were their own special clique of two, the best of friends, while I was growing up. I just happened to live there. I knew my sister was going to sadder than me today, and I didn’t need to be reminded of it. Now I was not only the black sheep in our family of three, but I was a bad daughter – for not crying enough, for not appearing sad enough. I could already see it. My relatives would go home and talk about how lovely and sad Jenna was, but what was wrong with Bethany? She didn’t shed a single tear, how cold and heartless she must be.
As soon as my sister came downstairs when our limo arrived to pick us up, I felt immediately insecure. She wore a skirt that was probably too short for the occasion, but she hid it by wearing thick black tights underneath. Her hair was done, I’d heard her using the blow dryer after her shower that morning, and it looked like she’d recently gotten blonde highlights. Her makeup was carefully applied, as always. She looked presentable and perfect. I, on the other hand, had been up late trying to study for a property law exam, had fallen asleep at the table, and had woken up when I heard Jenna flushing the toilet this morning. I’d scrambled to my childhood bedroom to throw on an outfit that made me look like a 23-year-old spinster, and I hadn’t had time to shower or wash my hair. I could feel Jenna looking at me during the limo ride, but I kept my eyes out the window.
I didn’t hear a word during the funeral. I made my mind go blank, a clean slate, and then I tried to remember everything my professor said during my last properly law lecture. I didn’t cry. I could hear Jenna sniffling next to me. She clutched a tissue in her hand.
Maintaining a blank, calm exterior was more difficult at home, after the funeral. My social skills were as poor as they’d always been, and I felt my inability to make polite, benign conversation was noticed by everyone. I also had trouble talking about my mom, because I’d never felt like she even liked me as a person. She was ashamed of me – I was strange, too quiet, shy, bookish. Jenna was her pride and joy, bubbly and happy. Even now, as a I stole a look at Jenna from across the kitchen where I was quickly washing some small plates for our guests to use, her face was lovely and tear stained. I could tell she was talking to someone about our mother just by her expression and her eyes. It was amazing to me how we could feel so close and so far apart at the same time. Then I overheard one of our relatives tell Jenna she was the prettiest girl in our family, and it felt like a knife in my gut.
I’d spent most of my life wanting to be pretty, but knowing that all I had was that I was smart. And because it was all I had, I’d done my best to nurture my intelligence. If I couldn’t be the prettiest daughter, I’d be the smartest. But that didn’t seem to work either. I remember my mother beaming at Jenna during the night of Jenna’s prom as she took photos of Jenna and her date, some hot football player. Jenna had spent all day at the salon getting her hair and makeup done, and her prom dress was red and glittery. She looked like a princess. My mother’s eyes shone with tears. I didn’t understand why she could be so proud of Jenna for being pretty, which was something she’d been born with, but she could muster up a single ounce of pride for me and all the hard work I put into school. Straight A report cards and science fair awards and winning debate team tournaments would only garner a smile and a “That’s great, honey.”
When I began applying to college, I thought I’d finally have my moment. I got into every school I applied to, but my mother was still only mildly interested in my acceptance letters when I showed them to her. In my early years of high school, she’d tried to encourage me to go out and make friends, but I felt so different from the kids at my high school. They were like a different species to me. I couldn’t relate to them, and by the end of my sophomore year I’d stopped trying to force myself to care about things that I didn’t give a shit about. So when it came time to go to college, I selected a school that offered me a full academic scholarship, far enough from home that going home to visit much would be inconvenient, but not quite across the country. For those four years, I felt free. I went home for holidays, but other than that, I went home as little possible, even when our mom got sick. She’d rather have Jenna there caring for her anyway, I thought. What did she need me for?
Law school was a different story. Yale was my dream school, and getting in felt surreal, like all of my hard work had really, finally, paid off. I didn’t care about taking out student loans to pay for it, I had to go there. The downside was that it was just a quick train ride away from home. I thought hard about going to law school somewhere else, because life without my mother and sister felt so natural to me, but ultimately, I couldn’t say no to Yale.
After the last guest left, I retreated to the bathroom to splash cool water on my face. I looked at myself in the mirror. I looked tired. I had no idea what time it was, but it was dark out. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I crept out of the downstairs bathroom and went into Jenna’s childhood bedroom. Our mom had kept our bedrooms mostly the same since we’d left, but Jenna had only been living on campus for a year, so her room still felt like her. Her dresser was decorated with photos, mostly of her with her friends, but there were a few of Jenna with our mother. In the center, the largest photo of all of them, was a photo of the three of us at the beach. We’re little – I look to be about nine, which would make Jenna four years old. Our mom looks young in the photo, too, beautiful and happy. She was crouched down in between us, an arm around each of us. It was a good photo. The sun was shining, the blue ocean was behind us. I wondered why Jenna would have a photo with me in it on display in her room for her to see every day.
I felt a sudden tightness in my chest, and I knew I had to go. I ran from Jenna’s room to the bathroom, turned on the sink, and burst into tears. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cried. I hated it. This wasn’t a pretty cry like Jenna had cried at our mother’s funeral, I was sobbing, ugly crying, hoping Jenna couldn’t hear me while I let it out. I had to get this one cry out of my system, and then I could leave. The strange part was that I didn’t feel like I was crying over the loss my mother. I was grieving for the relationship we never had, knowing that now we’d never have it, but also for my distant relationship with my sister. We were adults now. I didn’t see how we’d ever get past our secret resentments of one another, the ones that we had never talked about.
I went back to my room and packed up my things. When I went upstairs to say goodbye to Jenna, she was already in our mom’s bed, falling asleep. She didn’t seem sad to see me go. She probably wanted to be alone. I called an Uber to take me to the train station. I didn’t know when the next train was, but I wanted to be on it. I went outside to wait, and it felt like spring. I went back inside, picked up the photo of the three of us from Jenna’s dresser, and put it in my bag. It wasn’t until I was on the train that I realized it was a photo that Jenna had chosen to leave behind when she moved away to college.
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Really nice story. Well-written and relatable. I loved the juxtaposition of the two sisters, and the backdrop of the mother's funeral was a poignant way to highlight the differences and difficulties in the relationships between the two sisters and among both of them and their mother. The endings of both Jenna's and Bethany's sections were sad but full of truth. Often I think literature, movies, etc. get in wrong with funerals, in that they drag out the tears and the emotion and have everyone hugging one another and making up, etc. or they go...
Great effort. Keep up the good work!