My big family can drive me crazy, but they help me see clearly what is important.
The entire airport security line paused their conversations to stare in shock at my family as we approached the carry-on conveyor belt in a loose, trailing procession. Their whispers carried clearly and I heard them counting and the disbelieving exclamation “They have seven kids!” repeated again and again in the growing queue. I felt like a circus sideshow. Step right up and see the family that is singlehandedly replenishing the earth! In all my fifteen year-old glory, I rolled my eyes in annoyance. But my red face betrayed the embarrassment bubbling up within.
My family was quite a sight to behold. Mary, her shirt obviously backward, was at the front of the line fumbling with the DVD player she needed to take out of her bag. Three-year old Joseph struggled to wrestle his Buzz Light-year backpack unto the belt, his mouth, covered in sticky white glaze from the breakfast donut, pursed in concentration. Hannah took off her beat-up tennis shoes to reveal sockless feet and a keen, pungent stench. Elijah removed his earphones for a brief moment as he strode through the metal detector and then proceeded to sit obliviously on the benches on the other side. John, with dark purple half moons under his eyes, loaded each of his three feather-light carry-ons (later discovered to be filled with stuffed animals) onto the black belt and shuffled zombie-like through the arch. Mom and Dad grappled with cumbersome camera bags and Sariah’s diabetes medication. I tried to maintain order amongst this line-choking melee; I lifted up bags, sorted shoes and jackets onto the trays and herded my little siblings through to the other side. I wanted to demonstrate that we were put together and high functioning rather than an unorganized mess.
When Sariah walked through, the detector began to emit shrieking beeps. My other siblings gathered around me, I sunk into the cold, metal seat and hung my head in my hands. The sounds of Sariah’s harsh sobs, intermixed with the stern voices of investigating TSA officers and impatient murmurs of critical, childless travelers, composed a coarse cacophony that scraped, raw, against my ears. They were no doubt formulating scathing critiques of my parent’s parenting techniques and their perceived inability to perfectly control their children. I was angry with these intolerant strangers. And also, horribly, mortified that they might be right.
Two years later, I woke up from my nap to my little sister pounding on my door. “Family meeting!” she shouted through door and rapped, sharp and staccato, against the wood until I groggily stumbled upstairs and sinking into the recliner in the study. Soft light filtered through the blinds, lightening the dark wood covering the bottom portion of the walls and composing the over-crowded bookshelves. The frames of my parents’ many diplomas filled the available wall space, leaving only slivers of wallpaper visible. Elijah reclined on the leather couch, taking up most of the room and leaving Hannah and Mary to squeeze together on the end. John and Joseph wrestled on the carpet, yelling at each other. Mom and Dad sat side by side, holding hands.
“Now that everyone’s here, we have an announcement to make,” my Dad began with a smile. John and Joseph paused their fight, sitting up on the floor, and everyone else quieted down somewhat in anticipation.
“You’re pregnant,” I deadpanned, still ornery from being woken up and dragged to family council.
My parents exchanged a quick glance, “Actually, yes. You are going to have another sister, she is going to join our family this January.” They beamed together, obviously overjoyed as my brothers and sisters squealed in excitement.
I, on the other hand, sat in shock. The revelation hit me like a blow. I was already so different from everyone at my school. I was the only Mormon amongst the seven hundred in my grade, amongst all my friends. Almost everyone I knew had only one or two siblings. Was it not enough that every we went—every store, every restaurant, every airport—heads turned and stared at us? Now I, at seventeen, would have a baby sister, one more thing to separate me from everyone else. I envisioned myself as standing on a ledge of ice that kept cracking, and this final blow sent me floating alone into the freezing waters of social Siberia.
My parents were already overwhelmed with their current brood. I often was enlisted to drive sisters to gymnastics, brothers to basketball, help Sariah with homework, make John a sandwich, give Joseph a bath, or perform many other acts caregiving. Now these responsibilities would be multiplied and parental attention further stretched.
My mind racing, I jumped up and I stormed out of the room, shouting that we already had enough kids and didn’t need any more. It was completely selfish. But in that moment, I could only see how this decision would inconvenience me.
Over the next few months, I gradually repented of my initial rebellion and warmed to the idea. But I still retained a grain of resentment. In The Book of Mormon, the Prophet Jacob quotes the words of Isaiah, warning of the danger of “put[ting] bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (2 Nephi 15:20). I so craved normality, the individualized attention and care my friends in small families received that it swallowed up the beauty, begging to be acknowledged, of new life. My selfishness blinded me.
The day we first visited my sister Lily, the hospital smelled sharply of antiseptic and the florescent light washed out the greenish-blue walls and colorful, whimsical artwork. My siblings raced each other down the hall, shoes squeaking on the white, tan flecked linoleum. In the room, my Mom sat up in her hospital bed, visibly exhausted; her hair hung disheveled around her face, she had deep circles under her eyes and her freckles stood out clearly in her pale face. But she gazed down at the small bundle clutched in her arms, with a warm smile and a glow of happiness.
When it was my turn, I carefully cradled my new sister on the stiff, white hospital bed sheets. Her face was scrunched up like she had just taken a big, sour bite of lemon and her tiny body was no bigger than a loaf of bread.
My parents brought her home a few days later. Her face gradually lost its sour lemons expression and she started to look around with bright-eyed interest. I always tried to steal her away to take naps with me. In the rare palpable quiet, her soft, furry head rested on my sternum and I felt the gentle rise and fall of her belly as she breathed in utter peace.
She learned to talk and walk. She cried petulantly for what she wanted and let out blood-curdling screams when things were refused her. She puffed up her cheeks and gave sweet kisses or stretched out her small arms to give short, clinging hugs. In short, I came to love her dearly and wholly. And she came to love me with an intensity that I did not fully realize until I left her a few months ago in Minnesota to begin college.
Sitting on a bench outside my next class, I called my Mom. She reported about how much Lily had grown, what new words she learned. And then, she related Lily’s new nightly habit; she looks at a picture of me and kisses it again and again, saying: “Goodnight Eliza, I love you.” Tears came to my eyes and I clenched my jaw to keep it from trembling. It was a moment of infinite sweetness.