There she was, my little sister. We’d congregated outside – Mum, Stepdad, two brothers, a sister-in-law, Hubby and me. Sis emerged from the building in front of us, boyfriend in tow. This is their stomping ground and inside those walls they’ve spent countless hours in the laboratories studying plant DNA. Or something called polyploids, in Sis’s case, and this day was her day – as more and more people gathered outside, I could just about see how her nerves were beginning to set in. Sis was about to go into the auditorium and defend her PhD thesis and all these people, us included, were going to see her do it.
“The opponent isn’t here yet, I hope his flight was cancelled,” Sis giggled and rolled her eyes.
The process strikes me as brutal. Some terribly clever and eminent professor was flying in from the States, his role for the day to challenge Sis’s thesis. First she’d present for roughly 20 minutes. Then the opponent would give a presentation too. Then Sis would get grilled for “as long as it takes”, a process that, we were told, could take hours. This, in front of three other professors who’d then decide Sis’s fate, plus her supervisors, other PhD students, friends and of course her whole family.
“So who is the opponent?” Mum asked and put her arm around Sis, “someone you know?”
Sis rolled her eyes and laughed as you do when someone says something outrageous.
“Well,” Sis’s boyfriend smiled, “if you imagine the professors on the examination board are in the treetops, this dude is on the moon. He is THE guy.”
“Time to go in!” a woman shouted from the entrance and the small crowd started to move.
“Welcome Professor!” someone else then exclaimed excitedly.
Yep, there he was. THE guy. A man of slight build, sharply dressed and with a happy smile on his face and laptop bag swinging by his side as he hurriedly made his way in. I glanced at Sis and caught her eye. She turned her head away and shrank a little, tears welling up. Every big sister instinct kicked in. I wanted to scoop her up, make everything difficult go away and threaten anyone making her feel anything other than amazing with violence. I inched over to where she stood. No hug, just slipped my hand into hers and held it tightly.
“Breathe. You’ve got this. You know this.”
“I know,” she whispered as she blinked a tear away, “it’s just a lot of emotion.”
I could see Mum hovering nearby, probably cursing me – the thunderous, messy one – and willing me to leave Sis – the gentle, steady one – alone and not get her emotional. Uhm, not get her emotional like ME. I’m better at being calm and steady now that I’m sober, but I guess my family might still be getting used to this. Sis took a deep breath, smiled her chipper here-goes smile, shrugged her shoulders and off we went.
Everyone took their seats, at a guess around 60 people in total, and after a brief explanation of the order of events, Sis did her thing. To me, she is still five years old and tip-toeing into my room in the morning and crawling into bed with me, Pocahontas book at the ready for me to read to her. To me, she is a delicate butterfly. To me, she is a vulnerable and fragile little pixie I need to protect and defend. Hell, I felt ill and unsettled when she moved in with her boyfriend because I didn’t feel she is ready to have her heart broken and only relaxed when I realised he worships the ground she walks on. When we took a walk around the area where they live, I felt the need to say she mustn’t go running those trails on her own late in the evening. I want to wrap her in cotton wool and make everything easy for her, never let her feel hurt and never let her worry.
However. She isn’t five years old. She’s 30.
There in front of us was an accomplished woman, who presented her PhD thesis with confidence, charm and enthusiasm. She moved calmly between changing slides on the laptop projector and then to stand in the middle again as she spoke about the gobbledygook on the screen. The red dot thingymabob she pointed at the big screen was steady – had she even trembled a little, it would have gone all over the place. Nope. Not a twitch.
Of course she passed. She got grilled for three hours and she said afterwards that it was the worst thing she’s had to do, but she got her PhD to loud cheers and applause and is now DOCTOR Sis. We, her family, were congratulated too and THE guy, the king of polyploids or whatever he is, shook our hands. He smiled warmly at me when it was my turn and told me that my sister is a great scientist and he’s looking forward to see what she’ll do next.
“We’re ready to go to the Nobel dinner so we hope she goes for a Nobel prize,” I told him, thinking I was being ever so clever and amusing.
“Yes, we will start dieting soon!” Mum chimed in, thinking she was being ever so clever and amusing too.
“Oh?” THE guy went, eyebrow raised, “they will have to create one for biology, there isn’t one.”
Well, screw you too, smarty-pants. Doh.
What Sis showed me, or emphasised rather, was how to live life on life’s terms. She believed in this. Sis felt passionate about polyploids, whatever those are. She had something to say about it, and she was going to say it, damn it! She felt a thousand jitters and years of hard work and lots of hurdles had her on the verge of breaking down in tears. The opponent probably felt to her as I imagine I’d feel if Toni Morrison were to appraise my writing. But she didn’t run or hide, she got on with it. She felt the fear and did it anyway. And that’s just it. Sis didn’t try to soften the blow or numb herself. She had to do this and she did it. Oh, and the Toni Morrison of the world of polyploids said she’s great. Great things rarely happen in the comfort zone, right? Time to take a leaf out of Sis’s book, me thinks.
I was also reminded of something I already knew – I have to bloody stop feeling everyone else’s feelings! I reckon most of the time it’s not even how they feel anyway, just how I imagine they do. Oh fuck it, she’s my little butterfly and I would absolutely thump anyone who crosses her.
And now, with Swedish countryside swishing past as we’re on the fast train from Gothenburg to Stockholm, I’m once again a little confused as to why I moved away. Every so often, when I go to Sweden, I have a little moment of bewilderment. It’s so lovely here! It’s clean, everything works and absolutely everything is of a much higher standard than in the UK. And then some stupid Swede will just barge into me and say “oops!” instead of “sorry”, jump the queue (what the fuck is the problem, blondies?), push on to the train before people have managed to get off (this warrants a prison term as far as I’m concerned) or generally drive me insane (WOULD IT HURT TO USE A BIT OF COMMON SENSE AND MANNERS YOU BLUE-EYED FREAKS?). I’m a total schizophrenic when it comes to my patriotism, you see. When I’m in the UK – which, by any measure is “home” – I’ll happily preach about how Sweden is the crown of creation. Then when I’m in Sweden I immediately see all the things that are so much better about the UK. Perhaps I’m a fairly even blend by now?
Today I’m not going to drink.