Photo credit: Ryan Brackin
Come sunrise, we were sworn enemies. Because I was a morning person and my little sister Lydia was a demon. At least when she first woke up. My internal clock would go off five minutes before my mom was due to wake me up, a good little solider ready to attack the day. Lydia slept like a gin-drunk: sheets pulled in every direction, her body set at painful angles, like she collapsed that way the night before and hadn’t moved since. If you tried to rouse her, god help you. She would lash out, flailing violently, with a force that belied her tiny arms. My mom gave it her best shot for many years, but after catching an errant backhand to the face one morning, she called it quits. Nope. Done. Not my job anymore.
So it became mine.
Lydia slept in my older sister Anna’s bedroom, with Anna. We tried making Lydia sleep in her own bedroom but it never took, and so Anna, ever gracious, allowed Lydia to bunk with her. For her entire childhood. That was just how it was. Lydia needed the safety of the family, the comfort of the nest. Anna was her nocturnal rock.
The two of them would fall asleep in Anna’s king-size bed watching Star Trek
, then Anna would head out at the crack of dawn with my father, off to figure skating practice before school. That’s when Lydia would really tuck in and hibernate. An hour or so later, it was my job to wake the bear.
When I was first assigned the duty, I was a saint. I would quietly crack the door, tiptoe over to her and softly coo, “Lydia, time to wake up.” My bedside manner was impeccable, a loving sibling welcoming his sister into the light of a new day.
“NO!” she would shriek, shrilly, a somnambulant Emily Rose. She’d begin wildly kicking beneath the sheets, gnashing her teeth. “NO NO NO NO NO NO!”
I took it in stride. I had heard tales of the nasty girl who lived down the hall, and I was not going to be deterred. Lydia and I were going to be locked in this struggle for the foreseeable future; there was nobody lower down on the totem pole for me to punt to. I figured I had to make it work. So I continued to try to kill the beast with kindness for over a month, to gain a little ground each day as though taming a wild animal. But some animals are beyond taming, like a beautiful quetzal that dies the instant you cage it, or a feral possum that just needs to be beat in the head with a fucking shovel.
So you see, I’m a bath man. You can see it in the way I carry myself.
There was just no getting through to Lydia while she slept.
Then I had a breakthrough. I realized that waking up Lydia was only a thankless task if I expected a thank-you. If I recalibrated my expectations, asked for nothing in return, and instead tried to find a joy in her rage, mornings would be a lot more fun! So I tweaked my delivery.
I would announce myself with a kick to the bedroom door, an initial cannon blast across the bow of her slumbering ship.
It was loud and violent. She’d shoot up in the bed, confused, alarmed, irate. Upon seeing me there in the doorway, she’d begin emitting a high-pitched wail as her head rotated a complete 360 degrees and thousands of tiny spiders poured from her mouth and eyes.
“LYDIA, GET UP!” I would command in my most authoritative voice.
She would slam her head back onto the pillow and pull the sheets completely over head, emitting another high-pitched wail that only dogs could hear.
“Lydia, I’m going to take a bath! If you’re not awake by the time I’m out the bath, I WILL FUCK YOU UP!”
As a side note: I grew up in a house with no showers. When they built my childhood home way back when, baths were the lay of the land. So every morning, before school, I got up and took a bath. As fast as I could. While my classmates were luxuriating in scalding hot showers, I was speed-shampooing beneath a spigot, prostrate in inches of tepid water like some sickly medieval prince, so that I wouldn’t be late for school. So you see, I’m a bath man. You can see it in the way I carry myself. Not always, mind you, but at certain moments it really comes through: this innate refinement and sophistication. When I’m wearing a pea coat with a scarf, for example, and it’s fall in New York. Or even when I’m just staring wistfully towards the horizon. You’ll catch sight of me and register a certain nobility, and you’ll think to yourself, “My god. Now there is a man who took baths his whole life.”
And you’ll be right.
During my peak years I could get the job done in three minutes flat. So mere moments later after my initial warning, I would spill out of Anna’s bathroom only to find little Lydia snoring like a businessman in first class.
“LYDIA, I’M GOING TO GET DRESSED AND THEN I’M COMING BACK HERE! IF YOU’RE NOT UP BY THEN SO HELP ME GOD I CAN’T BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT HAPPENS!”
I would run to my room, quickly get dressed, and return, all business. Because at this point she had blown her chances. Diplomacy had been exhausted. It had become clear that the only thing the beast inside my sister would understand was brute force. Which I had in spades.
Directly onto Lydia’s stomach, Macho Man Randy Savage-style. She would burst from her slumber, a dervish of elbows and fingernails; she screamed obscenities backwards in Aramaic, her hell-hound breath melting the skin from my face. But I could overpower her. I’d pin her down and begin summoning spit with practiced refinement: first the slow rumble deep in my esophagus, then the hack as I moved the phlegm through the back of my throat up to the tip of my tongue, readying a dose of morning venom. Once I felt my loogie had achieved optimal viscosity, I’d slowly release it through my pursed lips, where it dangled, slug-like, in the space between my mouth and my little sister’s nose. The creature beneath me would thrash its head back and forth, but such measures were futile. There was only one way out of this. And the beast knew this. It must relinquish the little girl it inhabited. There had been too many times when that spit had landed wet and thick on the demon’s nose, eyes, and mouth. So finally, begrudgingly, all other options exhausted, the monster would depart from my little sister and Lydia would return, blinking rapidly in sudden comprehension. You could see the realizations come over her: the day is beginning, my brother is on top of me, I’m about to swallow two-and-a-half ounces of his mucus.
It is time. This day must begin.
“Okay, okay, I’ll wake up!” she’d relent.
I’d retract the loogie in hyper-speed rewind, hop of off her, and smile.
“Good morning, Lydia, I love you!”
Kill her with kindness.
“Good morning,” she would hiss.
Then she’d trot off to the bathroom to brush her teeth, grumbling.
But if you watched her closely in those moments, and she didn’t know you could see her, the slightest smile would crack her little face. There was a cognizance in that grin; the recognition of the hard-fought efforts of a worthy foe. And as Hyde passed over the baton to her daytime Jekyll, I would head back to my room, triumphant. Whatever nocturnal beast tormented her had been vanquished. My little sister Lydia had returned.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a writer, comic, and actor who lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife. He is the author of Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir
(Touchstone), a moving tribute to a lost sibling and an inspiring meditation on mental illness, grief, and recovery. Tragedy Plus Time
is on sale August 21, 2018 by Touchstone an imprint of Simon and Schuster.