I saw Josie first, even though she was my sister’s Patti Playpal, a doll the size of a three-year-old child. I saw Mom stuff her in the back of the linen closet, wrapped in one of the brown army blankets Dad brought home from WWII. Mom made me promise not to tell my soon-to-be nine-year-old sister about it, as if being five wasn’t old enough for me to know that Debbie’s birthday present was supposed to be a surprise.
I coveted that doll and begged for one of my own. When Mom and Dad told me they’d match my money if I saved to buy my own Patti Playpal, I spent the summer digging up dandelions, pairing clean socks from the clothesline, and sudsing up bumpers and hubcaps whenever Dad washed the station wagon. My allowance stayed in the piggybank when the Good Humor man drove down our block on sticky summer nights, and I only got popsicles if Mom passed out nickels for an after-dinner treat. By late fall, I’d reached my goal: three dollars and fifty cents–half the price of the doll.
Patti was waiting in the back seat one afternoon when Mom picked me up from ballet. I was too excited to mind that she hadn’t taken me to the store with her to choose. Now I had a doll to sit on my bed, too. I loved her blue eyes and rosy cheeks. I loved her even if her blond hair was thin and straight, not nearly as pretty as Josie’s.
Playing with our dolls involved putting them in clothes I’d outgrown, fixing their hair, and reading to them. On Christmas Eve, Debbie and I dressed Josie and Patti up and stood them by the fireplace to await our company. Mom even let me unwrap one of my presents early–red doll shoes–so Patti wouldn’t have to be barefoot. The following summer, I cut Patti’s blond hair to a Buster Brown bob that I immediately regretted. And once as I tried to wrestle an old undershirt on Patti, her arm came out of its socket. When she came back from the Doll Hospital with a rectangular hole cut out of her back, I looked longingly at the still perfect Josie sitting on Debbie’s bed.
When Debbie bought a sophisticated Platinum Blonde Barbie with a short and poofy bubble cut, she let me play with her first Barbie doll, whose long red hair was pulled back into a ponytail. But whenever her friends came over to play Barbies and Debbie shut me out of our bedroom, I had to leave the ponytailed doll behind. I eventually saved up for a Barbie that was completely my own, copying Debbie by choosing a Bubble-cut Barbie, too–only mine was Ash Blonde. The Barbie with the ponytail, though, was always my favorite.
Debbie left Barbie dolls behind when she started Junior High, graduating to autograph dolls instead. Her friends signed their names all over the dreamy Dr. Kildare doll that lounged against the bed pillow Josie once claimed. I bet I was the only girl in my third grade class who had three Barbies then–one of my own and two hand-me-downs from Debbie–to play with.
I got a big box full of Barbie clothes that Christmas, an amazing wardrobe hand-stitched by Grandma Blackwell. It was a day to remember, but not just because of the clothes. I had come down with tonsillitis during the night and was too sick Christmas morning to even open my presents. I was curled on the sofa, limp with fever as Mom and Debbie sat on the floor beside me and pulled out brocaded evening gowns with shawls trimmed with feathers or mink, exclaimed over velvet skirts and silky tops, and dressed the Barbies in Jackie Kennedy style taffeta shifts with matching coats. With the exception of the pearl trimmed wedding dress, there was two of everything: opera dresses, housecoats, shorty pajamas, beach robes and more. I was glad Grandma had begun her monumental sewing project when Debbie still liked Barbies, because the outfits lured my sister into playing dolls with me again when I was feeling better. We dressed our Barbies to go to ballets, operas and balls, Debbie leading the way with fashion even then. The hours Grandma spent lovingly cutting up old slips and stoles and piecing together scraps of lace and fabric didn’t just make my Barbies the best dressed dolls in the neighborhood. Grandma’s gift gave me time alone with my sister again.
Deborah turned sixty-three last week. I brought her to our house for a little party, even though I knew it was going to be hard to get her back down the porch stairs when it was time to drive her back to Wellspring. I figured if worse came to worse, my husband and I could cross our arms into a chair and carry Deborah down, with Jill–Deborah’s companion–and Mom steadying her from behind.
After a walk around the gardens, we went inside for cake and ice cream, which Jill fed Deborah between bites from her own plate. Then it was time for the birthday girl to open presents. In truth, Mom and I were the ones doing all the opening since Deborah just stared at the packages, her hands folded in her lap as if waiting for the presents to reveal themselves. I remembered four years earlier on her fifty-ninth birthday, the first since I’d moved her to the assisted living facility in Vermont. Deborah had opened her gifts with great abandon then, barely glancing at one before reaching for the next. “Are there any more?” she’d asked after finishing the pile I’d amassed, my feeble attempt to make up for her usual birthday gatherings with old friends. Friends who still met, friends who mourned the empty space Deborah once occupied and missed the poems she sometimes composed for such occasions.
In the four years since, Fronotemporal Dementia (FTD) had crept further into my sister’s brain, stealing her words. Her laughs were grunts, her exclamations a string of vowels. As Mom and I opened her presents in my dining room with Deborah looking passively on, we filled her silence with a running patter like sports commentators working the crowd. Would you look at that wrapping paper? What a bow! The scotch tape’s giving way, the paper parts, and WHAT do we have here?
Mom gave her a complete Rapunzel set to go with her other Disney Princesses. When Deborah was still a vice president at Disney, I remembered her talking about the Disney Princess marketing phenomenon, how quickly it caught on for little girls to tour the parks dressed as their favorite characters. Now whole aisles at Walmart were devoted to Disney Princess dolls, costumes, games, and art activities.
A few months ago, I bought Deborah her first Disney Princess, a four inch fashion Cinderella doll with MagiClip dresses that even preschoolers could slip off and on with aplomb. I bought it because Deborah liked to hold onto things, because Deborah needed to hold onto things, even when the things were unsuspecting people’s arms or wheelchairs. I bought it because Jill mentioned that Deborah liked to hold the small carved figures she brought back from India years before. I hoped that Deborah would look at it as a token of her years at Disney rather than a toy, a reminder of better times instead of further proof of her brain’s degeneration.
Deborah’s eyes had sharpened when I handed her the little Princess doll, and she had given the Cinderella her full attention. Anything that drew Deborah out of the apathetic haze of FTD, anything that stimulated and connected her to the rest of the world, was a triumph, a bittersweet victory. So I combed the super stores and added Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Sleeping Beauty and Tiana to our growing arsenal of ways to stimulate my sister. Jill used the Princess dolls to stage fashion shows and swim parties. When I came to take Deborah to the park, the Princesses might be lounging on handkerchiefs against the sides of their Tupperware pool, or posing in front of a mirror. Whenever Deborah and Jill headed out on the Wellspring bus for a scenic drive, a couple of Princesses would peek out of my sister’s travel bag, waiting to ease her restlessness, her compulsion to move that was sure to come twenty minutes into the trip–the yin to FTD’s signature yang, inertia.
I went out on a limb with my birthday gift to Deborah this year. I bought her a toy that wasn’t a nod to her success at Disney, a toy that I hoped would provide one more avenue for pulling her out of the daze that had become the default of her being. I bought her Abby, an eighteen-inch, American Girl-type doll with blue eyes and blonde hair that fell past her hips. A doll who looked like a larger version of Barbie’s little sister, Skipper.
“You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind,” I said, passing her birthday bags that held Abby and several outfits. Even though Deborah’s behaviors had more in common with toddlers than adults nowadays, I always worried that some essence of my sister still glowed deep inside, that I might diminish the glow by treating her like a child.
“It’s for your inner fashionista.” I showed her Abby’s tutu and leggings, pink leopard print pajamas, and a Disney Channel-worthy outfit with matching beret. “Remember how we used to dress our Barbies for the opera?”
Deborah didn’t reach for Abby when I sat the doll on the table in front of her. But she didn’t wander away to stretch out on a sofa, either. She didn’t leave her little party to restlessly roam the downstairs peering into rooms or fumbling with the latches on the doors leading outside. Deborah stayed in her seat and watched closely as we changed Abby into a new outfit, listening as we exclaimed over the hat and matching shoes.
“Isn’t she the cutest thing you ever saw?” I stood Abby where my sister’s cake had been, and turned the doll around like she was at the end of a fashion runway. “Here, you hold her.”
When I lifted Deborah’s arm, her fingers automatically clasped Abby around her waist. She bent closer, studying the doll’s face with the same intensity she used to pour into books. Her mouth was open and drool pooled in her lower lip. I caught it as it spilled, an automatic reflex using the quilted bib that had become a critical part of Deborah’s outfits now, one of many I’d sewn in patterns to coordinate with her clothes.
I couldn’t linger on the sadness I felt, watching my sister drool like a teething child. I couldn’t linger on the stark contrast of this pathetically vulnerable adult with the confident sister I remembered. My job now was making Deborah’s life as pleasant as possible. Grieving wouldn’t further my cause.
“If you want, I can sew clothes for her,” I said, thinking about the three pieces of seersucker fabric that were folded upstairs in my sewing room. I’d bought them so I could make lightweight bibs for Deborah to keep her cooler in the summer months. The first one I sewed out of seersucker was a total bust, soaking through to her clothes after five minutes in the park. I figured I could use the remaining fabric to make Abby sundresses and nightgowns.
“Would you like that?” I asked, rubbing Deborah’s back, hating how easy it was for me to fall into a kindergarten teacher voice when carrying on my one-way conversations with her.
On the way back to Wellspring, Jill suggested Deborah give her baby a kiss. I glanced in the mirror as my sister obediently bent over her doll. Jill was wonderfully upbeat–playful and fun–and Deborah responded to her well. Even so, I couldn’t help but cringe whenever my sister was spoken to like a child.
I hated the way my steps quickened when I slipped out of Wellspring, relieved to leave Deborah in her bed, nose to nose with her doll. Guilty relief to leave the shell that used to be my sister and go back to the riches of my life.
When I had set her birthday cake with its flickering candles in front of Deborah that afternoon, she hadn’t known what to do. “Close your eyes and make a wish,” I had prompted, closing my own for a moment. “Did you do it? Okay, now blow.”
We leaned in together, but it was my breath that put out the tiny flames.
“Yea!” I said, clapping the way I did every time Deborah got out of the car without being pulled.
“Yea!” Deborah echoed, a smile flickering across her face as she clapped with me.
“That means your wish will come true,” I had said in my brightest, kindergarten teacher voice. Cringing as I heard myself treating Deborah like a child.
As I raced away from Wellspring, glad to have her birthday–and the burden of trying to make it feel special–behind me, I wondered if she’d made a wish.
I had. I wished I could make Deborah’s world right again. But like most birthday wishes, I knew it would never come true.