When she was born I was a bony adolescent—what I call gawkward—who wore bifocals, DARE t-shirts, scrunchies, and fluorescent tracksuits. I left my sixth grade class early to go to the hospital to meet my new sister, who was round as a piece of gnocchi and as white, with a soft down of light red hair on her head like a smear of sauce.
I could have eaten her.
My mother, groggy from medication, asked worriedly if the baby’s nose was as big as it looked on an ultrasound photo from weeks before. I told her it did not. It was a tiny nub of a nose. She was beautiful. Perfect.
Last year my sister and I both celebrated milestone birthdays; I turned thirty and she eighteen. Because I am poor, thoughtful, and guilt-prone, I decided to give her a homemade gift: a small book of advice upon entering independent womanhood. A list of what I wish someone had told me when I was eighteen.
Why did guilt enter into this? Because I left home when she was only seven, and wasn’t close by for much of her childhood.
While this is probably normal for siblings separated by twelve years, the home I left and in which she remained with my brother was sometimes unstable and turbulent. And while there was nothing I could have done to change that, I still struggle with knowing I wasn’t present.
I wasn’t present because I was figuring out what a grownup is, and how one survives in the world with little support. The first in my family to attend college, paid for by scholarships, I navigated that world largely alone. I bought a car when I was seventeen with money I won from an essay contest, and kept a change of clothes and essentials in it because I spent most of my time outside class working at the YMCA.
When I was nineteen and a sophomore in college, a plane hit the Twin Towers and less than two months later I said yes to a friend who, in the parking lot of a Waffle House, asked me to marry him. Two years after that, I did just that. I had never applied for a credit card. I had never had sex. I had never cooked with garlic.
I didn’t know what questions to ask when renting an apartment. I didn’t know what a co-pay was. I didn’t know that white wine should be chilled but red should not. I had never driven a car on the interstate. I had never written a resume, never used liquid mascara, never lived alone. I didn’t have any close female friends.
You might be wondering if I am a reliable authority for my sister—someone from whom she should take advice about making her way in the world.
The answer to that question is: I am not.
Their responses were as varied and as generous as they are, and ranged from general comments like “Never stop learning,” and “Pray often,” to the more specific “Give Celtic music a chance,” and “Remember that, in a recipe, pickled beets cannot be substituted for regular beets.”
Learn how to say you’re sorry. Mend relationships as soon as they are broken or if there is any ill-will. Make friends with people who are younger than you and who are older than you. Embrace your quirks and imperfections. Hang out with nuns. Don’t be afraid to walk away from people who are mean, crazy, abusive, manipulative, or untruthful—in romance, in friendship, or at work.
My friend Jo Anna responded with a message quoting an essay that urged, “Please do not close your mind to the not-small epiphany that epic joy exists.” She also wrote:
I love Olive Garden and football and my family and my dog and Mary Poppins and pretty, yellow flowers and long hair on little girls and holding the Bible my parents gave to me when I graduated from high school in a church where we still sing old hymns. And I love my family and my old truck and cowboy boots and blue jeans and embroidered skirts. And I love God.
Don’t not love something just because someone says it’s not cool. Love with everything you have.
Even with all of this thoughtful, valuable advice, I never completed my sister’s gift. From time to time I pick it up, and think of something new to add. As I’m writing this, her nineteenth birthday is a few days away, my thirty-first a few days after.
I think I knew from the beginning that the project was doomed to fail. What I wanted it to be, really, was some way to protect my sister from pain—from the same extravagant missteps and stumbles I experienced. But of course the truth of the matter is that there is no way to prevent pain.
I keep reminding myself, too, that my sister is not me. She has the same parents, is going to the same college, and laughs at the same things. But where I was meek and naïve and unsure, she is brave and savvy and strong.
Although I realize the impossibility of protecting her from the world, nothing can prevent me from trying. And, twelve years her senior, I have earned the right to give a little advice. I start by echoing Jo Anna: Love with everything you have. I follow it with this: Accept the love you are offered.
And here, sister, you can start with mine. Because I offer you all the love I have. Accept it, please, because it is all I really have to give.