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March 15, 2013

My Sister's Keeper


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Subject

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We were called the girls. Mom called us her ladies. Cara called me Her. One twin goes and the other must follow. I got ready to die. I starved. I lied, and I swallowed pills. I wet my marital bed. I cut my arms with a knife. I divorced. I refused sleep out of fear of dreaming of Cara. I allowed any man who wanted me to f--k my body of bones so I wouldn't have to be by myself. I lived alone in a house I filled with my sister's furniture. I crashed cars, and I quit my job. I checked myself into mental hospitals. I scared our mother. I turned my-self into Cara. I wanted to chase my sister into the afterlife. I saved myself at the brink of our two worlds. I cheated my own death. What one twin gets, the other must have. I declined my piece of our whole. I became a woman who owns half a story: I lived.

I don't know if I believe in the intuition of twins. The knowing, feeling, or knowledge of the whereabouts and pains of a double have always seemed impossible to me, even having one of my own. But when I found out about Cara, I was driving in Manhattan. And before the ringing phone in my lap was answered, I knew what I'd discover on the other line.

I DISPERSED CARA'S ASHES in Hawaii, Thailand, Germany, and Hollywood. My sister has no grave marker, no memorial plaque, no stone with her name carved above a date. It was my choice that she have no resting place. Our family plot is in Schenectady, New York. Acres and acres of rolling hills that once abutted the forest are now directly beside a suburban shopping mall. To visit a relative there means to be in full view of Macy's and Sears and shoppers rolling their filled carts to waiting SUVs. I refused to abandon Cara in a dismal scrubby plot, in full view of mall employees and bargain hunters. There was simply no place to leave her, so I took her everywhere. I divided up her ashes and kept them in multiple bottles, urns, boxes, and satchels. I carried her for three years in my pocketbook. I have one container of ashes saved in a storage unit at the funeral home. I took her to California on assignment photographing a heavy metal band from the '80s. I brought her next to an artists' retreat in New Hampshire. I tossed some of her ashes into a ravine from the open window of a writing studio. When I traveled to the White Mountains with Cara's friend Danielle, we set her loose in a cold, black trout stream behind Danielle's in-laws' house, down a hill, past stalks of blue wildflowers and a ditch of tiny stones. I mixed her ashes into eyeshadow and dusted my lids. I dipped a wet finger into a baggie of ash and tasted her bones. I dropped an urn of Cara, spilling her, and vacuumed her up. I stared at her ashes for hours and marveled at the way they sparkled and at how light and free she had become. Lastly, I brought her ashes to Venice, as she had asked me to do, after a trip we took there once.

A YEAR LATER, I was admitted to the graduate writing program at Rutgers Newark and granted a fellowship — just like Cara had been at UMass Amherst. It is very difficult to explain the thing that happened to me through writing. It did what time and therapy and lovers never could. Because writing was the only way to be with Cara, to move again in tandem, writing won hands down over my grief. I knew that to write I must have a clear mind. I would need enough sleep and nourishment and sobriety to adequately tackle our story. And at a certain point, I'd written for long enough that I'd practiced my way into a good life. Words helped free me from the delusion that I was doomed. I wrote my way through our story and developed my own authentic voice: I separated us.

One night, after I'd moved back to New York, I had a beautiful dream. Cara and I sat together in a tree house, looking up at the midnight sky. "What if I'm a star hurtling through the atmosphere?" I asked her. She considered my words carefully and then she smiled bright as the moon. "You'll get stardust in your bra," she said, and took both my hands into hers and kissed them. I woke from my dream laughing.

Excerpted and adapted from Her, published by Henry Holt. Copyright © 2013 by Christa Parravani.

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