When people met Nicole and me for the first time they always rattled off the same questions: Are we sisters? Why is she blond, and I'm brunette? Who's older?
Yes, we're sisters. My mom had blond hair when she was young. And Nicole is two-and-a-half years older than me.
Having an older sister means different things to you at different stages of your life.
When we were kids and she could play at the neighbour's house but I couldn't cross the street without an adult, I was annoyed.
When she learned to drive and I was still in middle school, I was jealous.
When she had her first boyfriend and they would watch television in the basement, I was curious.
When she was old enough to buy alcohol, I was polite.
And when I was in my early 20s, she became a true friend.
Our relationship was no longer defined by what she could do and I couldn't. We were equals. But she never stopped being my older sister.
She told me I needed to spend less. Save more. That the new jeans I bought just didn't look right on me. And she frequently told me to stop biting my nails.
When her birthday rolled around, however, it was my turn. I inspected her face on her 30th birthday, assessing the wrinkles. Trying to figure out what the future held for me in just two and a half years.
And though she rolled her eyes and told me to stop scanning her face, she was holding back that smirk I knew all too well. I can't tell you how many times people told us we had the same mannerisms and identical expressions.
Nicole turned 31 on Sept. 11, 2008.
She never turned 32.
Cervical cancer stole her from her husband. Her children. Our parents. And me.
It all happened so quickly. One day she was feeling a little off. A year later, as we both sat in the hospital, doctors broke the news to her. She was going to die. It's one of the only times I remember seeing my sister cry.
Afterward we sat together on a bench, letting the tears stream down our faces. She said she would drive home because I was too upset.
I slowly turned my head toward her and we both laughed. Even after receiving the most devastating news of her life, she was taking care of me.
When she was dying I did everything I could to comfort her. And yet even in her darkest hours, she would reach out to me and make me feel better. Reassure me that everything was going to be okay. It's what she had done her whole life.
Those first days and weeks after her death, I tried to continue. Figuring out each day how to go on when that one person who had been with me every step of the way was gone.
As the months passed, there was one question I feared more than any other: Do you have any siblings? I do. I did. I had a sister, but she passed away.
"Was she older or younger?" She was older.
"How old was she?" She was 31. She was two-and-a-half years older than me.
And now, it's my turn to turn 31.
I've learned you can never predict how you are going to feel when a milestone comes around. That first birthday after she was gone, I felt no different. I couldn't imagine feeling any worse.
That first Christmas, for the whole month of December, I felt like I couldn't breathe.
And even now, every single morning I have to remind myself she's never coming back.
There will be no more Sunday dinners. No more arguing over the remote control. She'll never see me get married. Never meet my children. We won't have adjoining rooms in a seniors' home like we had planned.
It's so hard not to give in to your mind. Let it wander away and take you places you don't ever want to go.
I can't help thinking about how scared she must have been. Knowing there was nothing more she could do. That she was never going to grow old.
And as I was preparing to say goodbye to her, she was preparing to say goodbye to everyone she'd ever known.
She's the bravest woman I've ever known.
Right now I can't stop thinking about one thing. This month I turned 31. As my birthday approached, there was a pit in the bottom of my stomach.
So many of my friends are scared about aging. Nobody wants to get older. But I feel guilty. I am allowed to get older and Nicole wasn't.
I made a pact to myself last year that I would always welcome getting older, and never sulk in the annoyances that can come with it. It's a gift. A privilege.
I already know next year will be hard. I'll turn 32. I'll be the one looking at myself in the mirror. Studying the wrinkles, counting the grey hairs. Figuring out just what a Cardillo sister looks like at 32.
But for now, for the first time ever, Nicole and I are the same age.
Andrea Cardillo lives in Toronto.
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