My baby sister Erika entered my life shortly before lunch on the 11th of July, 2005, at which point she was just shy of a year old and fifteen pounds, spending her whole life up to that point in an orphanage in Hunan, bestowed with a Xiang name meaning “beautiful when raining,” tiny even among the others, with a penchant above all for the sound of ringing bells and congee. In the sixteen succeeding years she became more American than her Evanston-born brother and markedly more cynical, and though she quietly lies warm beneath layers of shyness, she is fundamentally averse to attention and especially those who seek it, doubtful of those she terms “open” (for who would want to reveal the self?), particularly derisive towards me, the golden child “prodigal son,” she claims, who in spite of some good qualities is too puffed up and sees life in a superbly horrific way—sentimental, romantic, hyperactive, full of work that must be done—an attitude that scares her more than mice frighten elephants. Erika only has two genuine interests: video games and anime, and the center of her character is an unmitigated joy, ironic without the depressive trappings of her generation, in these things and their TikToked hype. She is the love of my life, a bond built because I was of sentient age (eleven) when we adopted her and served as her primary life-instructor henceforth. I care for her as I imagine other people do their children; nobody’s better than her, I would die for her, or kill for her, and she is my hero more than I could ever be hers; she has taught me about myself far more than I could ever teach her, in spite of her junior disadvantage. Ah—my sister, my best friend!
Alas—I hate to demystify myself, to unfang my potential, but here’s the rub: if you ever get a speech at all resembling the paragraph above, I’m probably trying to charm you. My glazed eyes and warm gaze are by this point mostly simulated, for your seduction. I love Erika, of course—of course! I even mean everything I am saying; only, the rhetoric is, admittedly, less accidental than it may have been ten years ago, when I got to college and noticed how unfortunately adorable this packaged mawkishness was. There appears to be nothing more heartwarming than a grownish man gushing over a more vulnerable human being he loves: “I love being a big brother!” say I, with pride (drawing indeed from my true adoration of her) face and body forward but one eye on how it captivates you.
It is the same problem with displaying your charity and more broadly goodness placed out in public: too quickly comes the disappearance of the line between selflessness and selfishness. Perhaps I set out to do good, but then comes the moment you look at me with approval, alchemizing the goodness into currency. The unfortunate monetization corrupts our finest instincts. I am late to this party, of course, the forebears plenty: lacking the proper place to pinpoint in Aristotle and brandish my erudition, I can think only of the one where Joey triumphs over Phoebe’s attempts to find a selfless good deed.
Watch—even now I feel this becoming too much about me, a problem not because I lack egotism but because I see that I am betraying my performative edge, which knows that laudatory remarks pointing towards my (wonderful, heroic!) little sister are better pathways to sexiness than incisive self-reflection. There, I suppose, encapsulates the issue of talking about Erika, who is after all an enormous part—if not the very most essential part—of my potential to do any good in this world. The fear is that I can never actually talk about Erika—that in her unwilling integration with my will I have come to discern her primarily as a mirror for my work on Earth. To write some words about her is fraught with a narcissistic danger, already constantly present in a personal blog (all creative nonfiction is quite megalomaniacal, isn’t it?).
The importance, of course, is that sometime within the next decade or so I shall hopefully join Jason among the haunting ranks of fatherhood. Of course I would not make any pretensions towards comprehending parenting’s challenges; my rearing of Erika was comparably a poor novitiate. Yet Erika must be a starting point to apprehending what I perceive to be the grand task of life: forging decent and happy human beings. Yet how can I do that without making it about justifying my own existence—my own decency and happiness?
Recently, on the way home from dropping Ankush off in Oak Brook, Evan and Alex and I discussed the awful propensity of parents to use their children as task-completers, extensions of ego who might fulfill their lives’ lost covenants. Surely we have all felt this way at one time or another, filled with the faults they had, with some extra, all fucked up. (Nobody puzzles me like a 20-something confident that they were well-parented). But can we really do better than them? Each year I find my tendencies closer and closer to my mother’s, and next year I shall be as old as she was when she had me. This is why the question of my capacity for selflessness, and the recognition that my experience with loving Erika has strayed away from selflessness before my feeble eyes, seems so central to how I measure my soul today: because, like many others, I want to do better than them.
In spite of its alleged categorization as a children’s book, The Little Prince, whose universality has increasingly astounded me as I meet more and more of its lovers, is I think really the world’s cutest parenting manual. Dessine-moi un mouton, the Prince says, in the moments after he appears: Draw me a sheep. As everybody already knows, I’m sure, the narrator’s first three attempts at drawing sheep—each reproduced for us—fail to satisfy the alien, content only when he is given a sketch of a box. “Ça c'est la caisse. Le mouton que tu veux est dedans.” “This is but the box. The sheep you want is inside.” “C'est tout à fait comme ça que je le voulais!,” says the Prince! “That’s just what I wanted!”
In the two or three months before we adopted Erika, my eleven-year-old self forecasted my future in pedagogy, making an intricate plan of what to teach her, day by day, for at least the first year of her life with us. The list was heavy with things I wished I had encountered sooner in my own tutelage: by the age of two she should be well-versed in the Magic Tree House adventures and have formed a ranking of the Beatles’ albums. As anyone might have guessed, she has yet to hear Rubber Soul. If God laughs when we plan our lives, he must cackle gleefully when we plan the lives of others.
Imperfectly have I heeded that initial warning against brainwashing, Erika’s implicit plea for individual liberties. Her blank stares when I tried to teach her the alphabet early were rebukes towards a different sort of love. Impelled by admonitions to provide sheep, I failed to recognize that my presentations of woolly creatures were misfires, mistakes subsequently reproduced in my worst moments since as a teacher, friend, and partner. Given the gift of loving another, the wisest and far more courageous offering—brilliant in its emptiness—is a box.
Lloyd Sy is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Virginia, where he is completing a dissertation on deforestation in nineteenth-century American literature. His work has appeared in Talking Writing. Genre of literature: Creative non-fiction