Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon

With this pandemic lockdown in full swing, most if not all of the public libraries in my area are closed. In their absence, I’ve started enjoying the offerings of several Little Free Libraries that popped up around my neighborhood in the last few years: cute, birdhouse-like boxes, often decorated with hand-painted designs and inviting colors, that contain a shelf or two of books. One’s mileage varies depending on the library box (someone in my neighborhood seems to be using it as a way to get rid of their romance novel collection), but some favorites include Christopher Priest’s The Prestiege and then this little number, Riding the Bus with My Sister.

Riding the Bus is an autobiography chronicling waxing and waning sisterly bond of two sisters: Rachel, a thirty-something-year-old academic, and her younger sister, Beth, who lives with a cognitive impairment. Beth is also in her thirties, but her way of acting, speaking, and viewing the world borders on childlike — and she knows and owns this with a contagiously inspirational level of confidence. (The book, published in 2002, does not hesitate to describe Beth Simon as “mentally retarded” in a purely technical sense.)

Beth lives on her own in the city, something which we eventually learn she fought very hard for. She has a boyfrend named Jesse, who is also disabled, and counts the social workers who respectfully monitor her case among her friends. She also rides the city buses regularly, just for the heck of it, befriending the bus drivers with mostly favorable results.

Some might say Beth’s thriving under the circumstances. She certainly feels she is. Others are concerned that she’s neglecting her health in multiple ways. We’re shown multiple counts where Rachel and the rest of Beth’s family walks the fine line between letting Beth revel in her independence and intervening before health problems get out of hand. At the end of the day, Beth lives on her own terms, and within the “weird” but “cool” lifestyle she’s carved out for herself, it’s obvious that she’s extremely happy.

Riding the Bus with My Sister in part tells the story of what happens Beth tries to share her life with Rachel. As a birthday present, Rachel agrees to come stay with Beth at her apartment regularly, and ride the buses with her for a year. Rachel enters the world of buses, the diverse personalities of their drivers, and the passengers who love and hate the vivacious presence of “Cool Beth”: talkative, extroverted, situationally oblivious, but confident to a fault. In some ways, Beth lives in her own world, but she is a part of ours no matter how much it tries to cast her individuality and eccentricity aside.

Rachel writes with the experience and weariness of an older sister, playing the nurturing elder sibling role much longer than most people have to. At times, she is frustrated at times by Beth’s limitations, and she’s honest about this; but she is also honest about Beth’s gumption, confidence, and ingenuity, and how these elements of Beth’s personality have aided her as she lives between her two worlds: the gritty Pennsylvania city and the lifestyle she’s cultivated for herself. Rachel, unconditionally loving, learns to accept and respect her younger sister, and through this narrative, gives us charming vignettes from multiple periods of their lives which exemplify the extent to which Beth has fought to win at life.

The passage of time in this book is perhaps the most confusing part of this book for me. Rachel Simon tells multiple narratives at once: her sister’s journey to relative independence, her family’s breakdown and gradual reconciliation, her sister’s health struggles (or facts of life, if you asked Beth), and the ups and downs of Rachel’s relationship with her sister throughout the years. Some of these events are presented in italicized flashbacks, while others are simply brought up with, for me, insufficient indication of the time and place. I guess it’s all a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff, but it’s intriguing stuff nonetheless.

Rachel Simon does not condescend or infantilize Beth in this written portrayal. She introduces us to a nuanced and unique personality who comes to life from the page, and that goes for the entire cast of this book. She chronicles how she came to gradually respect and wholly accept her own sister, and in the process, encourages the reader to do the same. In reading this book, my understanding of how people live with cognitive disabilities grew and improved, I feel, for the better.

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