Thursday, October 11, 2012

My Cousin, Kirsten

I’ve written before that jealousy seems to be a complete waste of time, and somehow, without ever directly talking about it, my parents taught me that lesson at a young age. For the most part, I have lived by their subtle advice. But since I was a little girl, there was always one big exception – I was always painfully jealous of any of my girlfriends who had an older sister.

I am the oldest child in my family, and for so many reasons, I love that spot. But often, especially when I was younger, I longed for an older sister. Not any older sister, either. I had my older sister all picked out. She happened to be my cousin, Kirsten.

As a little kid, I felt like I was in the presence of a celebrity when I got the chance to be around Kirsten. At first, I’d even get nervous because I was so excited to see her and even at a young age, I knew I shouldn’t be so obvious about that excitement, lest I frighten her away. But the nervousness would quickly fall to awe and enjoyment as I got to hang out with my only older female cousin on my Mom's side. 

Kirsten lives in New Jersey, just outside New York City, so growing up we would see each other only about five or six times a year, for longer stretches during the summer and the holidays.  During those times, my aunts and uncles and cousins on my Mom’s side would gather at my Grandparents’ house on Long Island or at Helen and Fay's house in Tenafly. And even though I’d be so excited to see everyone there, when I walked in the door, my first question was always, “Where’s Kirsten?”

Kirsten and I have a lot in common. Probably the most obvious thing is our precious connections with our moms. Our fathers and our husbands could probably describe it best, but the truth is, we both love, admire, adore, and respect our moms in a very similar, I’ll never live more than a few miles away from you type of way.

We have other things in common too – from the pride we take in our work to our sweet tooth – but when it comes down to it, the most important thing of all is that we both value family above all. And Kirsten has never made that more clear to me than in these last few months.

But let’s back up to some our funny differences, too. Growing up, I was pretty much a “tom boy” (or whatever more politically correct word may have taken over the concept by now). In middle school, I fell in love with the sport of basketball and for a few years, I ate, slept, and dreamt about little else. I collected basketball trading cards and had a basketball that I named “Grant” (after Horace Grant, my favorite player at the time, mostly because of his unselfishness, his awesome rebounding, and his big eye goggles). Every chance he got, my Dad took me to the Boston Garden/Fleet Center/whatever it was called that year. I still remember our pre-game dinners at the Four’s -- turkey clubs and onion rings, gobbled up in great anticipation of the game ahead. I was a huge Bulls fan at the time (sorry Celtics, and Brianne and Seamus who never strayed from their Celtic roots). I cried happy tears when the Bulls won nation championships in the 90s and sad tears when Michael Jordan first retired. For our family vacation in the summer of 1994, my parents even drove our minivan all the way up to Toronto so we could see the “Dream Team II” play in the World Championship. Given my Mom's level of interest in basketball, I can't believe she booked that vacation. But she's always put her own interests last, and we all had a blast, even though Rachel asked if we were there yet just two exits up Route 95. 

Yes, I was obsessed with basketball for a good part of my younger years. I played in any pick up game I could find, which usually included all boys, and when I got to high school, the JV boys coach would even let me practice with his boys team once my girls practice was over because he knew I wasn’t ready to leave the gym. When basketball led me to my new best friend, Brianne, I knew I loved the sport even more, and she and I enjoyed four years of playing high school basketball together. I never gave up doing gymnastics through all of this, and I guess that sport counterbalanced my tom-boy-ness slightly, but only very slightly, because with my black sneakers and long mesh shorts, the tom-boy-ness wasn’t easily counter-balance-able.

For the most part, I didn’t mind that I wasn’t really girly. But in middle school, when I went through my terrible pre-teen awkward phase, I thought I was terribly ugly, and that was tough at the time. Looking back, I think every girl at that age probably feels the same way, and I hate that. I already think about this time for Annabel and I wonder how much we could or should do to help her through it, and how much every adolescent just needs to find his or her way through that period of great character building. Like my parents did, Brian and I will try to find the right balance. Just another reason to kill this cancer now and forever. I need to be here for that. 

It’s within this awkward tom-boy context that I would show up at Kirsten’s house on Thanksgiving Eve, ready to sit on her bed and look at all of her incredible, and oh-so-foreign-to-me, girl stuff. Colorful scrunchies and head bands, all sorts of make-up (most of which I wouldn’t even know what part of my face to apply it to), every color Champion sweatshirt that had yet been manufactured (and colored socks to match), dangly jewelry, and lotions that smelled nice. I would sit on her bed for hours and watch her do her hair or pick out her outfit. Then she would do my hair or my make-up and ask me what I thought about her clothes. I’d get flustered and nervous, because I had no idea, but I’d make something up so that I wouldn’t lose the chance that she’d ask me again. I remember blasting classic music like Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna to Give You Up,” in her room over and over, and I was in heaven. Not a jealous bone in my body, because I just sat there pretending Kirsten was my older sister. (By the way, I couldn’t resist posting that music video below because it is hilarious, and immediately brings me back to these happy days.)

At Christmas time, I loved seeing all of my cousins (and of course, my siblings). But nothing felt complete until Kirsten got there, and I'm pretty sure all of the younger cousins felt the same way. She was the fun one, the funny one, the cool one, the pretty one, the artistic one, the one who took care of us. And although we were all pretty comfortable in our somewhat nerdy skin, we all felt way cooler when Kirsten was around. Just by simple association, I guess. Never mind that we could actually say that we were related to her!

Me, Rachel, and Kirsten, probably around 1986.
When we got older and our Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions changed, we saw less of each other, and I missed her terribly sometimes. But even when we were both busy shaping our early adult lives, she would email or send a card reminding me how much she loved me. And every time I received one of those thoughtful notes or packages of generous gifts, I would try to reign in my impossible wish that we could live closer and see each other more often. Because that could only happen if our moms moved within a few miles of each other. (Smile.)

When life’s grand events began to appear on the family calendars – graduations, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, weddings – it didn’t matter to Kirsten that she had to drive over four hours to attend them (and four hours, possibly hung over, to drive back (smile again)).  Kirsten never missed those events for me or for Rachel. Even though by that point I was past my pre-teen tom-boy stage, I still hung on her every word and marveled at every beautiful fashion choice she made as I looked down in disappointment at my own. Kirsten did my make-up for my wedding, and even painted my nails just before I got in the car to go the ceremony. She and her awesome husband Steve led the party pack at Rachel’s co-ed bachelorette night earlier this year. And like usual, everything was more fun with Kirsten around...especially now that Steve came too!

These last few months, I have had that same thought over and over -- that everything is more fun with Kirsten around. She and Helen have visited several times since my surgery and every time they come, they bring a carload of therapy – gifts for the kids, craft projects, healthy snacks, embroidered bags with my blog name on them, books that could help Brian and I on this journey, a foot bath so Kirsten could give me the second pedicure of my life (after the first one over six years ago on my honeymoon, I wasn’t convinced I was the pedicure type), and more goodies. I love all that stuff just like I loved the scrunchies and the smelly lotions. But in the end, all I really care about is that my cousin, and my Mom's older sister, have taken the time to be here with us when we need them most. 

Even though Kirsten and Helen left Canton just this past Sunday, they will again trek down to Canton to see us tonight or tomorrow morning. This trip’s exciting event? My head shave appointment tomorrow. A few weeks ago, I met with Monique, the wonderful owner at Salon Monique in Canton, about getting a wig (again, my insurance company gave me a $500 prescription and it's probably no coincidence that $500 is exactly what Monique charges for her basic wigs). I had never been to this salon and I had no idea this space existed in Canton, but my neighbor Debbie told me about it and I couldn’t be more glad that I visited. Monique has created this large, peaceful, beautiful space upstairs in her salon for women (and men, I would think) to prepare for baldness, and for people with alopecia or other similar issues. Monique has a wonderfully calming and kind demeanor and when she sat down with me and my Mom and my friend Amy who graciously joined us at the consult, she taught us about the wigs and the chemo process as it relates to my hair and my skin. When we were done, she handed me carton of  homemade chicken soup. I was floored by her kindness, and when my Mom started to cry I thought it was at the thought of me being bald. But it wasn't that -- it was that she too couldn't believe that Monique would be so generous. Speaking of unbelievable generosity, tomorrow, my talented and wonderful photographer friend, Jennifer, will join us for my head shave and I will share photos of it. I think it will be a very powerful hour of my life and a big step in this journey.

I know that Kirsten thinks that too, which is why she insisted on coming all the way back here for it. And even though I've lied and told her otherwise, for some reason, I need Kirsten there tomorrow. Maybe it’s because I’ve always thought she was so stunningly beautiful, and even in my earlier days of thick glasses, headgears, and braces, she told me I was beautiful. Maybe I want to hear from her tomorrow that bald and all, I’ve got some beauty in me still. Maybe it’s because she will help us all laugh as my hair falls to clumps on the ground. Or maybe it’s just because she’s always been the older sister I’ve wished I had. Until now, that is. Because in these past few months, as Kirsten has filled my house with organic food, bought me clothes just because she thought I looked cute in them, taken my kids out on adventures (they decided on their own to start calling her "Auntie"), helped my Mom clean her basement when I couldn’t lift stuff, and driven back and forth from New Jersey just to be with me and hug me and tell me everything's going to be OK, I’ve realized that I don’t need an older sister. Because I have a loyal and selfless cousin who acts just like the best older sister ever could.

Jennifer's photo of me and Kirsten before my surgery.

Throw Back to the '80s:
"Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley


  1. Tara,

    I am beyond happy that you know how very much I love you - and have always loved you.

    You are one of the most beautiful people that I know - inside and out. I am so honored and lucky to have you as my baby cuz (that I have always considered a baby sis). You make me a better person.

    On a less serious note... WOW!!! That video is HIL...AR...I...OUS..!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ahahahaahh!! We used to think it was cool... obviously our cool-o-meter was slightly off. Haha!

    Love you with all my heart and always right there beside you. Thank you! xoxo

  2. Tara,

    The only thing better than reading this post was hearing Rick Astley just a few moments later as it pumped from the speakers of another R&G follower... we are keeping up on every beautifully-written post and thinking of you always! xo