I watch my sister slowly inch her way down the stairs from her second-story apartment. She moves one step at a time, sideways like a sea crab, holding tightly to the railing so the ocean tide of frailty doesn’t wash over her. I offer to help, to hold her arm, to inch along with her. To be sister crabs. She says, No, it will only bring us both down. We argue a moment, but she is my big sister. She wins, which means I go down ahead, then turn to helplessly watch her frightening descent.
She is fading in the light and I squint to see her.
She shouldn’t be on stairs. There are the knees that lock and buckle every now and then. There are the swollen fingers trying to circle the railing. There are the feet that reach out to find the edge, only to hesitate before stepping out and down, one riser at a time.
Still, she looks beautiful in this sideways slow-motion view. Terrifyingly beautiful. She’s wearing pink today. With a black and pink flowered overshirt. Black flats. She has carefully styled her hair into a thick topknot. I can tell it’s growing long again. When it’s long enough, she’ll have it cut off to donate to Locks of Love.
When she is at the bottom step, I realize I’ve not been breathing. It’s the middle of June in Phoenix. It is hot. My sister blows on her palms, her fingers, hoping to prevent the blisters certain to come after clutching a burning metal railing. I help her into the car and help her pull the seat belt across her shoulders. I help her click the belt in its clasp. I help her adjust the air conditioning vent. I help. I help.
I want to kiss her burning fingers to make them better, but instead, I concentrate on driving to our first destination. It’s errands day for my sister and I’m what she calls her “first line of defense.” She calls me that because I defend her from the daily onslaught of overwhelming circumstances that befall those who have mental illness. I tell her I should sew a pink Defender’s costume and ask if I should add a tool belt. She laughs and laughs.
Her bones are substantial, but still she is frail and she is fading. A pink costume and a tool belt won’t help except to maybe cause a laugh to escape from her mouth.
We reach our first destination and I help my sister from the car and into the bank. She insists I stay back. I understand. She’s lost her house, her car, most of her things, her dignity and her brilliant mind. Tiny moments of privacy, here and there, are all that’s left for her. After the bank, we go to the grocery store. She slides into one of the store’s motorized carts and says to me, You wait outside on the bench. I understand this too. She doesn’t want me to see the way her hand trembles as it reaches for a carton of milk, a can of peaches, her wallet with its few dollars tucked inside.
When the shopping is done, we drive back to her apartment and I carry her few bags of groceries upstairs. I help her put away the heavy items. I help. I help. Then we go back down the stairs, slow again like ghosts trailing along the day’s shimmering heat. We drive to my sister’s favorite restaurant where I help her navigate to her favorite booth. We order. We smile and I make conversation. Some days, she likes to be quiet. This seems to be a quiet day. When our food arrives, she eats in silence. With a napkin tucked into the collar of her blouse, her hair tucked tightly into a knot, her fingers still red from holding the metal railing on her stairs.
I look through the steam rising from my plate and, once again, watch my sister fade into the day.