Much, much less than 40 years ago today, a quiet, obedient baby girl was born to James and Clara Burke. In fact, it was probably a little closer to 40 years ago that Clara, who already had three wonderful children, began to realize that a fourth was on the way. This child was a surprise to Clara and James, but a welcome one, and little did they know how much baby Sarahjane would change the lives of so many people.
I was 20 months old, and I can honestly say I had no idea how important this child would be to me. Later, when I was 13 years old and Sarah was 11 (87% of my age in months) and a giggly little friend of my younger sister Amy, I still had no idea. Even later, when I was 15 and Sarah was 13 (89% of my age), I considered Sarah to be a silly little friend of my sister, and – even if she was inexplicably distracting when she slept over in her little nightgown – I had no idea that she would ever mean anything more to me than someone to keep Amy occupied on a Saturday night.
It was in 1984 when I was 16, now licensed to drive, that Sarah Burke turned 15 (now fully 90% of my age) on a warm May 25. She wanted to go to see the school play at Harrison High School. I said I was driving and Sarah could go with us. It turned out Amy was babysitting . . . well, let’s go anyway. Was it a date? I still don’t know, but the fact that James Yee ended up coming with us provided some comforting weight to the argument that I wasn’t going on a date with my little sister’s friend. Still, I sat next to her at the play and I realized that she had value beyond occupying my sister (and the nightgown). I still thought of her as a bit shallow, given her preoccupation with fashion and the French Club, and she thought me a bit of a nerd (I can’t imagine why). But that spring I was named the next Drum Major of the marching band, which was something, and she was chosen as the band’s twirler (complete with cute little skirt) which was something else.
And so began a casual summer romance that continued all the way until I graduated and she (at 92% of my age) graduated one year later. That was a long year, with me at Wayne State and Sarah still a High School Girl, and it emphasized the fact that Sarah was one year behind me.
After that year, the difference in our ages began to fade. In typical fashion, Sarah plowed through college without changing course much at all, while I continued to change plans along my path to becoming — whatever it is I’m going to be when I grow up. So by 1992, Sarah (at 93% of my age) was already a grad student at Michigan State by the time I started my graduate studies there, too. She graduated ahead of me and began gainful employment, before me, too.
When Sarahjane Burke finally became Sarahjane Burke Orwig, she was 94% of my age. By the time Harrison was born, she had reached 95%. So by then, we referred to people being “our age,” “younger than us,” or “older than us.” Our life experiences were so similar that we hardly considered there to be a difference between us, and statistically, Sarah was catching up.
Until this past September, when I turned 40. Although Sarah had gone from 89% of my age when she first distracted me to now 96% of my age, I suddenly learned that we were NOT the same age. I was 40. I had crossed a boundary that she still considered pretty far off for her. Upon describing someone as “our age,” I was abruptly corrected. This person was “my age,” not “her age,” which was actually much younger. Although Sarah is catching up statistically, by the all-important measure of Perceived Age, we couldn’t be further apart.
Young Sarahjane is so important to so many people. My life has been intertwined with hers for literally most of my life. Harrison obviously wouldn’t be alive without her, and (perhaps even more impressively) she has conjured three more lives into being out of cutting-edge biology and law, all driven by the power of her formidable will. She is one of the people who will (we hope) save the Ford Motor Company, which has been a part of my family for generations. Sarah is a daughter, a sister, and an aunt.
Today marks the beginning of the last year Sarahjane and I will spend apart like this, me in the world of the middle aged, she still a thirty-something. I love this amazing woman, we share a life and a family, and yet we are separated for this last year. We’ll be rejoined one year from now.
Until 2017 that is, when I turn 50, and we are separated yet again.