“Please don’t be mad,” my sister Lauren says near the end of our phone call.
We often talk on my morning walk to the subway; by then it’s early afternoon in Tel Aviv, and she’s between classes, or en route to the library. On a brisk January day like this one, I picture her coatless, the sun on her face, wearing her Blundstones and a banana clip in her hair. She fits right in among the moms pushing strollers and the retirees at the cafe, the soldiers breaking for lunch. It gives me a vague, wistful twinge.
I’m cold and tired, stressed about the work day ahead. And now she’s telling me not to be mad.
How many times in our lives had we started a conversation with that phrase? It was the most sisterly thing in the world. Please don’t be mad I borrowed your sweater. Please don’t be mad I’m missing your game. It turns out that… I know that… I told Mom that…
I’d be visiting Lauren in about a month, when we’d run the Tel Aviv half marathon together. She and her boyfriend were preparing for a full marathon a few months later, and the half would be another long run in their regimen.
But now she was saying the plan had changed. Her training hadn’t been easy—foot pain and the heat and the fact that she hated running (inconvenient for marathon prep), and she realized could switch from the Tel Aviv half to the full, since the two races ran on the same day, and check the marathon off her bucket list a few months early.
I shrugged it off — we would run our separate races and reunite at the finish line. And anyway, “please don’t be mad” no longer rattled me. Nothing could compare to the news Lauren shared, similarly hedged, seven years prior, when at the end of a post-high school gap year in Israel, she said: I’m not coming home.
That time, I was mad.
I told her 19 was too young to make such a weighty decision (I, meanwhile, was 23). Sure, she could promise she’d be back after serving in the army, which she considered her duty as much as anyone’s — it was only a matter of chance that our grandparents fled Europe to America, and not Israel. But we all knew how these things went: she’d fall in love with the country — and probably an Israeli too — and stay forever (which, by the way, is exactly what happened). I imagined our lives continents apart and felt betrayed, like she was choosing a place over people, over us.
We had always been a unit of three: me, Lauren, and our middle sister, Allie. My whole childhood I had taken our closeness for granted — the fact that we lived together, the assumption we’d always live nearby. Looking back, it seems magical. For more than a decade, we slept under the same roof, sat on the same couch and at the same kitchen table, our three little lives in concert: playing school and molding play-doh, learning to rollerblade, warming snow-sodden gloves by the fire. Allie and I shared a room and would stay up late talking, and for about six months in grade school, Lauren dragged her mattress between our beds so she wouldn’t miss out. There was always someone’s raincoat to borrow, someone to wait with at the bus stop in the morning.
The truth is things changed, as they inevitably would, long before Lauren called me from Israel. I went off to college, left my empty bed in the room I shared with Allie, Allie who loved our childhood home so much that for years she swore she’d live there forever. I left, and then even Allie left. Lauren was sisterless for three years of high school before she flew to Israel (for the year that grew into for good); Allie moved to another state and I to New York City — all, in indirect ways, landing me here: in the early morning in Tel Aviv, making my way to the starting line amid a constellation of neon T-shirts bobbing in the dark.
Lauren and I ran our races in parallel. We tracked each other with Find My iPhone and sent typo-ridden texts about how it was going. By that afternoon we both had a medal and a T-shirt, a silly post-race smile and very sore legs.
The next day was Shabbat, and Lauren and I spent it in Jerusalem, sitting in a grassy park. I was reading a book of essays, she was absorbed in a novel. From time to time we’d chat. It was a taste of an alternate reality, one that had once seemed far more likely, in which our adult lives intertwined with ease: where we sat, with regularity, in the same park, on the same picnic blanket, in comfortable silence, where we met up for bagels on Sunday mornings and hosted each other for dinner on a few hours’ notice.
But soon I’d fly back to New York. She’d resume her studying, and I’d call her in the mornings on my walk to the subway.
I now live closest to where we grew up, and I joke with both my sisters, still, that they could always come back. (“We don’t get Apple TV in Israel.” You could always come back!) And yet I know they won’t, and a part of me hopes they won’t, because they each have a life they love and I wouldn’t want them to leave it, not even for us. By now, their choices, and mine, are so ingrained in our collective story that I can tell a coworker or a date “my sister lives in Israel” and feel both things: that vague, wistful twinge, and a surge of pride. “Yes, she served in the army. She made aliyah. Yes, she’s fluent in Hebrew.” My youngest sister, building her independent, unexpected, beautiful life.
In the final minutes of the half marathon, my adrenaline long gone and knees throbbing, a girl a few steps ahead of me turned back and held out her hand. I looked to either side — who was she reaching for? There was no one. Her hand was still outstretched. I realized it was me, she was reaching for me, trying to pull me over the finish line. It was — like “please don’t be mad” — the most sisterly thing in the world. But it wasn’t Lauren.
As I made my way back into the city center, I heard cheering up ahead and saw I’d need to cross over the marathon route. On a whim, I checked Lauren’s location. It all happened in a matter of moments: I spotted her and yelled her name, she saw me and her face lit up. We hugged. I took her photo. She kept on running, with what looked like a bit more energy than before.
It was our version of crossing the finish line hand-in-hand, and maybe a better one.