My parents were busy in the 80s. Long story short, they were married in 1980, went traipsing through Germany for a few years courtesy of the U.S. Army and had quite a fine time, as best I can tell. What with the visiting countries and the good food and beverages, a non-stop party with the rest of the lieutenants and their wives, all while thumbing their collective nose at the communists across the way. But all good things must come to a grinding halt eventually. 1984 rolls around and the parentis Mackin find themselves in Fort Knox, Kentucky. While the commonwealth of Kentucky is a wonderful place I am sure, it is probably not nearly as exciting as swinging Western Europe. So the happy couple had to find other things to do. As a result my sister Kathleen was born in November of that year.
For a few years it was my parents, Kathleen and two huskies, Sam and Ski. It was the mid-eighties, music was for the most part terrible, the USSR was crumbling, and Rambo First Blood Part II was taking the box office by storm. The decade was looking like it would be all together unremarkable until thankfully for everyone I busted onto the scene in June of 86. Now the party could start. A month after I was born my parents loaded the household up, stuff, kids and dogs and headed south. I’m sure my father made an argument for leaving the dogs and the kids but Mom said no. So we move to Madison, Mississippi and my Dad begins doing whatever army stuff he was called upon to do. Obviously that didn’t take up too much of his time because my sister Annah showed up in June 1988. In under four years my parents had three children. After that I guess they got cable because no others have joined the Mackin brood to date.
But this isn’t about my parents, so enough loosely concealed references to their sex life. This is about my sisters and me. Our upbringing wasn’t all too remarkable. We did normal kid things like play games and sports and go to school, some of us did better than others. I was in the others category. Mom insisted we eat at the table as family as often as possible. That was nice. There we learned to sit up straight, put napkins in our laps, chew with our mouths closed. We also learned that above all else, Annah was to have the green plastic plate or there would be hell to pay.
My sisters were pretty good early on. Sure, we fought like all siblings do. We tried to be civilized though. For instance, one day I happened to be in Kathleen’s room for very important and legitimate reasons. Kathleen informed me that my border crossing was unwarranted and consequences would be had if I did not cease what I was doing and retreat back to the zone of neutrality that was the hall. I decided not to heed my older sister’s warning and instead laid down on the floor in peaceful protest. Kathleen feeling that further diplomacy was useless launched an all out offensive which devolved into a tussle and ended with Kathleen sitting on my chest and bending my fingers back. Well this brought me around to Kathleen’s way of thinking. In those early days when Kathleen was bigger than I, she was quite good at helping me see things her way.
I’ve got more stories about both sisters that go along the same lines, as I’m sure most anyone with at least one sibling does. We didn’t always like each other but we were always there. In rough times you know no greater ally than a sibling whether you are aware of it at the time or not. As army brats we moved around several times in the span of a few years. While we were all more or less social kids by nature and none of us struggled to make new friends, but those first few days in a new place could be lonely without siblings. We would explore the new quarters together. Walk about the neighborhood and find the best playground, figure out what routes the ice cream truck used. With my sisters always there, moving was easy, it was an adventure.
Once we settled in Virginia we went to the same schools. In high school Kathleen and I did not get along 90 percent of the time but there were times when we came together. We went to the local catholic school that required uniforms on a daily basis but every so often they would have an out of uniform days to raise money for this or that. On these days I would come down stairs ready to go in my cargo shorts, calf length white socks and running shoes. Both sisters would look at me and shake their heads in disgust. They would then take me up stairs and tell me what to wear so that I would not be a complete embarrassment to the family. To this day my sisters remain my fashion consultants even though they both live on different sides of the country.
After we all grew up and moved out of our parents’ house most tensions between the three of us subsided. I remember being on my way home on break and feeling weird about how excited I was to see Kathleen and Annah. They were still the same short women that I had grown up with but now they had these complete other facets to their lives that didn’t involve me. They have both grown up to be absolutely delightful people and there is seldom a time where I would not rather be a in the same room with them. The change in attitude towards my siblings makes sense when I think about it. Look at how much siblings who grew up in the same household go through together. We had seen each other through crushes, first loves, break ups, high school and college graduations, engagements, weddings, jobs searches, job interviews, arguments with significant others, arguments with parents, deaths in the family. It’s a bond that runs deep but has not been discussed. It just is. As I have wandered through my adult life on my own I have come to the realization a few times that my sisters have an understanding of me as a person, of my background, of my mentality that no one else is capable of having. We all just know. I know it may be 2 a.m. where one of them is but, if they hear that phone ring and know that I’m on the other end; I know they will pick up. They know that I do the same.
Over the last three plus years they have proven how deep our unspoken all for one, one for all code has gone. The day after I had taken Emily to the ER and the doctor discovered the mass on her brain, they decided that the best place to get the initial surgery was at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Emily and her mother were transported from Newport News by an ambulance and I would follow in my car after I tied up a few affairs. Not knowing exactly where I was going I decided to use the family GPS. It just so happened that Annah was had the garmin, so on my way out I stopped by her dorm room at the College of William and Mary to pick it up. I knocked on the door and as soon as Annah opened it she immediately wrapped me in a bear hug around my waist. “We will get through this.” She said while holding me tightly. Then she let go and walked back into her room. I followed her and stood next to her desk while she got the system.
“You doing ok?” she asked as she reached in her closet.
I had been asked that question a few times that day by friends of the family and Emily’s friends and medical staff and other members of my family. Up to that point I responded stoically with yeah I’m fine and then I would start talking about Emily again. I don’t know why but Annah asking me that question hit me hard. Maybe it was fatigue; it was early evening and I had slept maybe an hour or two since the previous day having kept vigil over Emily in the ER the night before. I think it was that, coupled with the fact that it was the first time I had been alone with one of my people since the ordeal had begun. I was in a safe place with one of the few people in the world who knew me the best. All of a sudden I went from “Mr. in control of his emotions” to my chest heaving and my eyes welling up. I remember thinking, “Fuck, Mackin, you are not, I repeat, NOT, going to break down in front of your baby sister.” But it was too late. I sat down at Annah’s desk and sobbed uncontrollably with my head in my hands. After a few seconds I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. Annah stood there with a bunch of tissues and put them in my hand. Then she put her arms around my shoulders and listened as I talked about everything that happened. How Emily’s head had been hurting almost every day for the past month and a half and how instead of being kind and loving I had been a complete ass. I thought she was being hyperbolic and needed to tough it out. While I didn’t say that to Emily, I remember not being as patient as I could have been. I thought it was just the stress of grad school coupled with the anxiety of being so far away from home. Now she was going in for major brain surgery and the thought of losing her, especially after acting so terribly was too much to handle. After a few minutes I was able to regain my composure. Annah then reminded me that this wasn’t something anyone could predict. She told me to carry on for Emily. She told me the past was the past. I had to move, I had to act. So I did. I got up, drove to Charlottesville, still feeling guilty but emboldened by my little sister’s words. Annah was 21 at the time. Annah is smarter than I. She is smarter than most people. On top of that she is wonderfully empathetic. I think she might take over the world. But that’s a different entry all together.
As Emily and I went through our hardship, my sisters were not only there for me but they were there for Emily. As anyone who has been married or in a long term relationship can tell you, your family liking your significant other can make life so much easier, well the Mackins and Buttericks liked Emily. All of them, as best I can tell. She was smart and pretty and had table manners and was good to me. What more could you ask of an in-law? Emily was one of theirs after about four months of us dating and they took care of her as such. When Emily was doing chemo in Washington D.C. during the winter and spring of 2010 I was at Fort Benning for infantry officer basic course. While I hated being away when she was going through treatment, I didn’t have a job. This was when unemployment throughout the nation was peaking. Being at school for four months would stave off the unemployment line for a bit. While I was gone she and her mother stayed with their cousins in Northern Virginia. That is also where Kathleen lived at the time. Every so often, Kathleen would go and sit with her brother’s fiancé. I never asked her to do it, she just did. She would go and hang out with Emily. They would talk and sometimes Kathleen and her hetero life partner, Katie would do her hair and paint her nails. I would call Emily and she would excitedly tell me about Kathleen coming by. “Oh Ben, Kathleen is just so easy to be around. I just feel calmer when she is in the room.” That might not sound like much to most people, Kathleen included, but at times like those when illness and treatment and surgeries and blood tests and every other stressful thing is coming at you at once, people with calming auras are so awesome to have around. It meant a lot to Emily and it meant the world to me. I could think of no one better to be there for my beloved in my stead.
My sisters are the some of the best people I know. I love them more than they could ever know.