I landed in Panama’s Tocumen International Airport, not sure I would recognize my sister’s face. She was fourteen years older than me and we had only met and learned about each other three years earlier. That year, Panama celebrated one hundred years of independence and Panamanians who lived abroad journeyed back to the beloved country they had not seen in decades. For my parents, it meant reuniting with distant relatives and loved ones, hair full of “las hojas blancas” El Gran Combo and Rubén Blades sang about. For me, it meant visiting their home country for the first time and meeting the sister and brother I didn't know I had. It felt strange, being introduced as adults, by our father who left Panama and didn’t return for thirty years. That short meeting would be the only time I saw them.
This time, I journeyed back alone. I was in graduate school and asked my father to ask my sister if I could stay with her during spring break. They had grown close and talked frequently since that first trip. I used my financial aid to buy a last-minute ticket, a red-eye flight from LAX that flew six and a half hours, across Central America. I recognized her immediately. Out of all our siblings, she resembled our father the most. The shiny black waves that curved her face when we first met were now bright, honey blonde flecked with deep brown. The color brought out the dark reddish-brown skin that would label her chola in Panama and red-boned in the States. I don’t recall if there were hugs when I arrived at the gate, though I’m sure there was the common courtesy of a kiss on each cheek. With a banal look she said, “Well, let’s go,” before directing me out of the airport.
She drove a black compact car that had the bounce and roar of an old stick shift. She hopped onto the highway, the thick grey smog and tropical humidity clouding the sky. The car-to-car traffic mimicked freeways back home in Los Angeles, “tranque,” she called it, with smaller cars than the usual mix of SUVs, trucks, and even Hummers on the 110 freeway. The first time I saw a Toyota Yaris was in Panama, driven by a tall man whose knees sat in his chest as he drove it. She lived in a barriada in Panama City close to the airport. On the way to her house, she pointed out El Machetazo, the superstore where she worked.
At her house, she opened the suitcase my aunt in L.A., our aunt, sent with me: lovingly packed clothes and accessories from Ross for her and her two adult daughters. She tried on a white jean jacket then dumped it on the clothes piled atop the suitcase. She got up, left the clothes on the floor, and said in Spanish, the only language she spoke and I mostly understood, “I won’t be cooking while you’re here. There’s no man here, no reason to cook or clean.” She pointed out the microwave, microonda, the first word of many I would learn from my oldest sister, a woman I was now seeing for only the second time in my life.
Someone banged on the gate. She swung it open and spoke intensely to the person on the other side. As I sat on the couch, the conversation became louder, like an argument, with the baritone voice I could not see. One of her daughters, launched into the room, stood by her mother’s side, fiercely protective. The conversation ended and she closed the door.
She paused for a moment then came over to where I sat on the couch pretending to be invisible. She said that the man at the door was her soon-to-be ex-husband and explained how they came to be separated. I was surprised that she would share details with me, someone she knew for less than 48 hours. An incident like this back home would have remained unexplained and understood as none of my business. My mother implored us never to share personal business with anyone outside of the family, a lesson she lived. My sister and I were acquainted, but not forged by years, secrets, and hurts that often seemed the proof of familial love. She did not turn her anger or hurt away from me, this stranger she just picked up from the airport, nor changed the subject. She shared and explained what I just witnessed, with an openness I had not experienced in my family.
That night, I slept in her bed while she roomed with one of her daughters. I stayed up in the silent dark, interrupted by the call of crickets and mosquitoes, heat and humidity, thinking about how far I was from home.
The next morning, she informed me that the showers in her house were not the steamy, warm showers I was used to at home. Her warning did not prepare me for the icy shower stream that shocked me and removed all weariness from the night before. Her daughters worked and attended college and would not get home until late in the day. My vacation was not their vacation. After I got dressed, I went into the bathroom to fix my hair. She came in and asked if I had any eyeliner. I looked through my bag and pulled out a black eyeliner pencil.
“This is the only color you have?!” she asked.
Yes,” I said, as confused as she was.
“Just black?!” She said, “No other colors? No brown, no purple?” She said “purpura,” a word I was not familiar with. I knew “morado.” Purpura, she explained, was the deep purple that complemented brown skin; morado was light purple, closer to lavender. I did not have purpura or morado eyeliner and, until that moment, had not considered that I should line my eyes in any other color.
I accompanied her to work for a short shift that morning. Before she left me in the makeup section (perhaps, a hint that I should explore the colored eyeliner), she explained, “The stores here in Panama are not like the stores in the States, where you can just open up the nail polish in the store and put it back after you’ve tried it.” She left. As I looked at the nail polishes, I noticed a clerk eyeing me...
My sister found me in the aisles at the end of her shift. “Do you like soup?”
We headed to a local mall and stopped first at a food counter that served all kinds of soups and stews. We agreed we both loved soup so much, we could eat it on the hottest day. My mother made chicken soup with yucca, plantain, corn on the cob, and dumplings, which I presumed was the type of soup offered here. I asked her if she knew which one of the soups had dumplings. “Oh, you know about dumplin?” she laughed. “We call that ‘chombo’* soup. They don’t sell that here, that’s the kind of soup you make at home.”
*The Panamanian equivalent to the N-word, in its racist origin, used by whites in Panama against Black, often West Indian-descended, Panamanians, and in its current form, as a term embraced by some Black Panamanians while still seen as offensive by others, and still activated by whites as an insult.
The chicken soup was delicious, though not as good as my mother’s. From there, we walked store to store, as I looked for souvenirs for my mother, nieces, and nephews back home. I told her I hated shopping; it conjured up the anxiety of growing up with every check-out a tense negotiation of items to remove or leave altogether because the money was short. She said the mall could be pricey, so we left for a street lined with small shops. We entered a clothes store. As she perused airy dresses and blouses, she said “You go to the store before you get paid. You see what you like and if it’s still here when you return, it was meant for you.” She enjoyed it, taking the time to coordinate separate pieces, the reward of finding good deals; a departure from the stress I felt with the task.
In my last-minute preparation for the trip, I did not have time to get a protective style that would have saved me the daily question of what to do with my hair. My sister explained that she styled her hair with a blower:
“They straighten the hair with a brush and a [high heat] blow dryer.”
“A brush?!” I laughed, “No, my hair needs something stronger than that. Like a hot comb. Do you have one?” My Spanish failed me, I did not know how to translate hot comb or flat iron. “A comb made of iron that you put on the stove,” I said.
“Ahh!” she exclaimed, this Spanish version of “ohhh,” but more confident and dramatic. “My grandmother used one of those.” Exactly, I needed the old school tools. She did not have one.
I wanted to ask if there was a local salon where I could get my hair braided, since Panama City had a large population of Black Panamanians. I braided a section of my hair to show her the style I did not have the name for. “Moños,” she said [though braids are more popular now, the common word is trenzas]. “I think our aunt does braids.”
“Who?” I asked, only familiar with our aunts in L.A.
“Our aunt, the youngest daughter of our grandfather.”
Our grandfather had two older sons, with our father being the eldest. Years later, she explained, he had another son and daughter, our father’s half-brother and -sister. She knew this younger aunt and uncle, as well as the grandfather I never met. She knew and had relationships with the family that lived and remained in Panama, while I knew the family that came to the States. If we were all in the same place, what kind of family would we have been? We were all related and how we related to each other depended on which part of the world we lived.
As she took me to see the Panama Canal, Panama Viejo, and other historical sites, we talked family history and heartbreak. She pointed out where our grandfather once lived. She told me our grandmother remarried him after her second husband died. She grew up with him in her life, while I grew up with our father in mine. She told me about her mother, who had passed away years before, that she walked around the house with her hands always cold and my sister did not realize she was dying. Every day with her was a new place, a new word, a new bridge that connected my understanding of a family that lived miles and countries apart.
As my trip ended, I wanted to check-in for my flight online. She did not have a computer with Internet at home so she took me to a local Internet café. She asked me about setting up an email account. I set up an email and instant messenger account for her with a quick tutorial on using both. After I returned home, we communicated via messenger. She sent me one email:
“UN FAVOR TUYO TU PUEDES INTERPRETARME UNOS MENSAJES DE UNOS AMIGOS MIOS DE INTERNET QUE HABLAN INGLÉS… aprendido mucho en la computa grasias [sic] por todo tu clase fue corta pero efectiva que fue un entretenimiento para mi.” Red Rose emoji. “Chao.”
Later that year, our grandmother in California passed away. My sister traveled to L.A. for the first time in her life. She wore a black and white sheath dress to the funeral, with a matching sun hat that slightly veiled her eyes. She did not hesitate to stand and share her love and experiences with our grandmother, which made it clear to me, that despite being in different countries, she maintained a relationship with her I did not have.
At the repast, she told me I made her look crazy when she explained to our cousins that I spoke Spanish. When one cousin said, “She doesn’t speak Spanish,” my sister replied, “I don’t speak English, how else do you think we talk?” In that moment, I could not prove the cousin wrong, could not open my mouth to parade the fluency my sister knew. She didn't know I could only speak Spanish with her. She did not get flustered when I spoke incorrect words or mismatched tense. She would gently say, you mean this or this or this and nod in approval at my corrections. I did not feel rejected or discouraged when I misspoke. There was space for my imperfection, for improvement. I discovered my ability to speak a new language, found comfort in that foreign place with her.
She remained in L.A. for several weeks and we both stayed with our aunt. I took her with me to work every day. From there, a male friend would pick her up and take her to tour the town - to Hollywood, the beach, to visit his mother in a nursing home. Of course, I sized the friend up and made sure I had his number. Apparently, he was an acquaintance of our father and hung out at a Panamanian-owned furniture shop with him. When our aunt questioned me about this, I said I did not know much about it. Once, my sister asked me to borrow a coat; coming from Panama’s heat and humidity, she did not realize how cold it would be. I showed her a couple from the closet. What I thought meant coat was actually jacket, something light. She pulled out a white windbreaker that fit her perfectly. I only witnessed moments like this on TV—the instinct to defend, the sharing of clothes, as measures of sisterhood. For a moment we were sisters who lived in the same house, shared clothes, talked about love and loss in our family, looked out for each other. When it was time for her to return to Panama, my father and I saw her off at the airport.
She returned to L.A. three years later. During her brief trip, she stayed with our aunt and the two of them spent the days shopping for the upcoming wedding of her eldest daughter. I had recently moved into the first place of my own and she stopped by before catching her flight, with the promise to see each other later that year at the wedding in Panama. The other sister I grew up with on this side of the world, who I barely knew as a child because she was nine years older and barely knew as an adult because of her drug addiction, who was the only reference I had for a sister before my sister in Panama, was parked outside. My distant-but-close sister from Panama went outside and introduced herself to my close-but-distant sister from the States, even though that sister refused to come inside to meet her, even though that sister said “I only have one sister,” when I told her our sister from Panama was here. In that instance, that sister showed herself to be the same person I knew her to be, and my sister from Panama showed herself to be the same person I had come to know. In that instance, I knew what it meant to have a sister by relation and a sister by relationship and that some distances grow too wide to cross.
Two months later, on the way home from a road trip with friends, we stopped to watch the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers NBA finals game. While my friends cheered the home team, I did not feel obligated to love a team just because it was located closest to me. I rooted for the Celtics—they ascended from being one of the worst teams to winning the championship, inspired partly by the brotherhood and mantra their coach emphasized: ubuntu – I am because we are. During the game, I received a phone call from my father’s cousin, who was like an aunt to me. “I’m sorry to hear about your sister,” I heard her say. The call was unusual – she lived in New York and we did not talk often. I had not received a call from my father or mother, which surely my mother would have called with urgency to inform me that something happened to my sister. I told her I was out of town and not sure what she meant. She said, “I’m sorry, I was mistaken, I’ll talk to you later.” We ended the call. The Celtics won that game but eventually lost it all.
When I arrived home, my mother told me my sister in Panama died. She had a stroke. For years, I didn’t understand what happened, the facts of her death lost in translation. She was only 44 years old and had not been ill. It was years later that the same cousin-aunt explained that she had a brain aneurysm that she could not survive.
I knew my sister for seven years, not even enough time for our first disagreement. The memories I carried felt like a lifetime’s worth. Yet, most of them fit within these pages. She had a name that I loved yet accidentally misspelled when I set up her email and messenger accounts. She forgave me. For months after she died, I would log onto the computer and see her name, dimmed and faded in the messenger box, just as I had saved it.
I didn’t make the trip to Panama for the funeral. Through tears, I wrote a note at our aunt's house and asked her to read it there. It was in English; I did not have the words in Spanish for all I wanted to say and could not turn to my sister once more to cross the gap. I didn’t feel like I had earned the grief, the sadness I felt, didn’t deserve sympathy like those who were closest to her and had years worth of memories to mourn. Perhaps, I was accustomed to the physical distance, not needing to be close to feel close. We were sisters, despite the short time and long distance. We became sisters, because of it.--
Jenise Miller is a Black Panamanian urban planner and writer from Compton. She is a Pushcart-nominated poet and Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) alumna. She is the author of the poetry chapbook "The Blvd" and has published work in KCET Artbound, Boom California, Cultural Weekly, and The Acentos Review.