Pillow: A sibling's story

This is a short story written by an adult sibling about the emotional bind siblings feel when they're burdened by excessive caregiving of a brother or sister with disability. We will follow the story this weekend with a note from the author about her personal experience and research. I hope this will spark a lively discussion.

Pillow: A sibling's story

Every time Sister packs for a trip, she takes along Pillow, a battered cushion in a rectangular cotton cover. Mysteriously stained, once-white, with a print pattern in faded primary colours, Pillow looks suspiciously childish for a trilingual woman in her 20s fearlessly travelling the world.

Sister recalls the day she got Pillow. It was a spring afternoon, and her parents wanted to visit the new IKEA store. They usually went everywhere as a family, but Brother was so slow and clumsy. He touched everything, spoke loudly and often made everyone stare in public places.

Sister felt embarrassed just imagining what could happen if they all went together. She knew they couldn’t afford a babysitter. Her parents were eager to go out for a change of pace, so she said she’d rather stay home alone with Brother. Easier for everyone that way.

Mom and Dad are back, their arms full of new things. After describing the taste of the Swedish meatballs, Mom holds out a small white pillow. “We got something for you, Sister. This is your reward for being such a good sister while we were out shopping.”

Surprised, Sister wonders: What about Brother? He’s been home alone as well.

Looking closely, she notices bright red teddy bears, pink-faced dolls and yellow trucks all over the pillow. Do her parents think she’s still a baby?

Just this morning they said, “You’re very mature for your age. We know you’ll be fine looking after your brother until we get back. Thanks for offering to do this.” Sister panics. Wait. Have I missed something?

She runs through her checklist: I made sandwiches for lunch, cleaned up the kitchen, told friends I can’t play today, helped him in the bathroom, played in the yard, then sang softly to calm him down after he got scared by a neighbour’s dog. She inspects his face and hands. They look clean enough.

Holding her breath, Sister wonders if they will detect that Brother tripped and scraped his knee while running in the yard. Parents and teachers seem to have a way of knowing when something bad has happened, even when kids don’t tell them right away. What if they notice the scrape later? They’ll be so angry at me for letting him hurt himself. Selfish me, I was the one who wanted to play outside since it’s so nice out. I knew I should have kept him inside all day. I’ll never forgive myself if his leg gets infected now.

Sister decides to volunteer to help with bath time. That way nobody else will see the scrape. I guess it’s okay I didn’t call the doctor. It wasn’t an emergency. She puts on three drops of iodine to disinfect the scrape before sticking on the band-aid, just as she’s seen her parents do a million times.

As she takes the pillow, Brother hugs her. “Thanks for taking care of me. I’m so happy you’re my sister.” What a relief. Brother’s already forgotten about his scrape.

Sister isn’t sure whether she deserves this unexpected gift. She’s anxious to get to the math homework she hasn’t even started. She presses the pillow to her chest and says the magic words that make them smile. “Thanks, Mom and Dad. You can go to IKEA anytime you want.”