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The Sister Plan

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He asked her to marry him as he stood in front of the bathroom mirror. She was almost out the door, late for work, and his proposal was a bellow from the second floor as she grabbed her coat and keys near the foyer.

His words were muffled, and she thought of ignoring them altogether, but turned around instead.

"What did you say?"

He cracked the bathroom door and repeated his question.

"I said, before you cut out of here this morning, I want to ask if you'll marry me."

After a pause, and through a fresh and foreign smile, she said, "I will. But I'm late for work and I'm going to have to call you when I get downtown."

And with that, wedding plans began for Monique and Derrick, a couple who'd been living together for two years, but who would now be making a commitment neither imagined just three years earlier, when their paths first crossed—the night Monique T-boned Derrick's Impala.

She had argued that night that the roads were deceptively slippery, but he wasn't listening. He knew the insurance bill would be hers regardless, and he knew he'd never meet a prettier redhead.

Now, on this cold winter morning, as Monique sat at work, having spent 25 minutes talking to Derrick on the phone, their thoughts centered on one thing: What would marriage mean?

As Derrick threw on his jacket and walked the dog, his musings swirled around the difference between living together and being husband and wife. Both knew they were entering foreign territory without a map, and both felt life suddenly becoming wildly dangerous and thrilling. Months later they would call this the day they leapt from the mystery cliff—a leap into warm Caribbean waters, ideally, but, as with so many couples, perhaps into the dry bed of a rock quarry.

Monique took a long lunch that day and went to a bookstore to find words that could answer her most nagging questions.

Derrick sat with a pack of Winstons on his mud porch, watching his beagle in the back yard and trying to imagine himself at 60 years of age with the same lover.

Both would come to similar conclusions, though not on that particular day. Ultimately, they'd come to see the gamble as worth it, no matter the outcome, and both would eventually agree there's no way to ever know what lies below the cliff. All they could do, they thought, was work the odds to their advantage. They'd try to make sure that, given the chance, every high roller out there would put money on the couple's survival. Monique and Derrick would stack those precious chips so high in their favor they'd rarely have to call on Lady Luck.

Derrick would come up with the most original scheme. Monique had her self-help books, and all the written advice, but Derrick would get credit for the "sister plan," and it would ultimately prove the charm.

"You're going to be my sis, Monique," Derrick said one day. "My wife, of course, my lover, certainly, but my sister as well."

Monique had no idea what he was talking about, and said as much.

"When we're born, we have family," Derrick continued. "They're there forever, locked in. Yet somewhere down the line, 20, 30, 40 years maybe, relationships get strained. Maybe sis ain't who she used to be. Maybe she went all Hare Krishna on everyone, or took advantage of mom and dad in some multilevel marketing scam. Whatever; we don't go out and get a new sis, do we? It ain't an option. This is family, and we figure out how to mend bridges. We end up, most of the time, working things out. Why? Because there are no other avenues, just estrangement, something that haunts too many families at the end of their lives.

"So, Angel, I'm going to make you my sister. Once our vows are repeated, you're going to be family. Not symbolically, I mean real family. And thus I'm going to have to find a way to navigate any rough stretches with you, because family is different, family is blood."

MONIQUE HAD NEVER HEARD of the "sister plan," but she liked it. And during a cold winter some 41 years later, when she was 67 years of age, she would write a book with that as the title. And it would play a key role in easing her through the grief of losing her husband to an automobile accident the previous spring.

But this was 1969. And there were so many good years still ahead.