Riding the Bus with My Sister

Riding the Bus with My Sister

by

Rachel Simon

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Riding the Bus with My Sister Summary

Riding the Bus with My Sister is writer Rachel Simon’s memoir about the year she dedicates to visiting and reconnecting with her sister Beth, who has a developmental disability and spends her days riding the bus routes around her Pennsylvania city. Over this year, Rachel finally manages to understand Beth’s unusual lifestyle, critically reflect on her own life choices, and appreciate the “traveling community” of bus drivers and fellow passengers that Beth has formed. In parallel with her visits to Beth, the book also covers Rachel and Beth’s difficult childhood and explores the connections between their upbringing and their adult lives.

The book opens with Rachel, who has become a solitary workaholic, deciding to visit Beth. They are only 11 months apart in age, grew up as best friends, and live just a few hours apart—but they haven’t seen each other in years. But then, Rachel’s editor suggests that she write a story about Beth, and she agrees. On the day of Rachel’s visit, Beth wakes Rachel up before dawn, then eagerly leads her to the bus shelter, where they board and ride one bus after another, all day.

Rachel quickly realizes that the buses offer Beth a vibrant, fulfilling social life: she knows every single bus driver and spends all day talking to them about life, society, and bus company gossip. While some passengers and drivers look down on her, most view her as a valuable member of the local community. Thus, by riding the buses, Beth achieves the kind of free, independent, joyful life that most people with developmental disabilities strive for. Her life is a testament to how new norms, laws, and social programs have made it possible for people with disabilities to live on their own terms—or achieve true self-determination—since the 1970s. In fact, Rachel concludes that Beth’s life on the buses is happier, richer, and even more interesting than her own life as a writer and teacher. So, when Beth asks Rachel to keep visiting and riding the buses for a whole year, Rachel knows that she has to say yes.

Over the next several months, Rachel visits Beth every few weeks and rides with all of her favorite drivers—like Tim, an intellectual who views bus driving as a unique window into the life of his city, and Jacob, who explains how his miraculous recovery from severe alcoholism taught him the value of selflessness and mercy. As they walk through town, Beth introduces Rachel to her misfit and outcast friends but also offers some concerning news, like a story about getting into a serious brawl with a homeless couple. Rachel meets Beth’s favorite driver, the quiet, thoughtful, “exotically handsome” Rodolpho, and then visits the bus drivers’ lounge, where Beth is a frequent honorary guest—and source of constant conflict.

Rachel and Beth go out for lunch with Beth’s boyfriend Jesse, who also has a developmental disability. But as with Beth, Jesse’s disability doesn’t define him: he may be illiterate and extremely shy, but he’s also an accomplished martial artist, champion bicycle racer, and well-known man-about-town. Rachel admires the wise way he fends off prejudice and explains his love for Beth. Meanwhile, Beth tries to set Rachel up with a handsome driver named Rick, but Rachel isn’t interested—even though it has been four years since she broke up with her longtime boyfriend Sam, she isn’t ready to date anyone else yet.

Throughout the book, Rachel alternates these stories with memories of her and Beth’s childhood. She explains how, just weeks after giving birth to Beth, her mother already knew that something was wrong: unlike other children, Beth barely cried or reacted to the environment. The doctor eventually realized that Beth was developmentally disabled, but he couldn’t explain why (nobody ever has). While Beth and Rachel always played together as children, Beth often acted unusually. Beth and Rachel’s parents told their three non-disabled children that they would eventually have to chip in to care for Beth, and when she was little, Rachel was proud to do her part. But then, her parents’ marriage fell apart: her father moved away, while her mother fell into a serious depression and became far less caring and attentive. Facing a miserable home life and isolation and bullying at school, Beth started acting out by bossing around her siblings and publicly embarrassing them.

Meanwhile, back in the present, Beth introduces Rachel to a series of other drivers. Estella overcame abuse and abandonment as a young woman, and now she spends her days advising her passengers through their own personal crises. Silly, sleep-deprived Bailey talks about the value of optimism and tries to help Beth get a job by hiring her to babysit his children. And fiercely independent, open-minded Jack talks about his struggles to find love and the way his previous job as a community service counselor has enabled him to direct passengers to professional resources like rehab.

Around this time of year, Rachel also takes the time to seriously learn about Beth’s disability for the first time in her life. Between internet research and conversations with Beth’s case manager Olivia, Rachel learns that people with intellectual disabilities often struggle with cognitive tasks, social skills, and recognizing the consequences of their actions. But while such people need extra support in areas like self-care and social interactions, once they get this support, they can do virtually everything that non-disabled people can. This is why many disability activists now favor the self-determination model, which holds that people like Beth should be able to make and follow their own informed choices about how to live, rather than be forced to comply with their family members’ and caregivers’ decisions. Rachel calls Beth “the embodiment of self-determination,” because she lives according to her own rules and desires. In fact, Beth doesn’t want to change anything at all in her life, no matter how much Rachel wishes she did.

The narrative from the past picks up after Rachel and Beth’s parents’ divorce. Their mother remarries an abusive conman who kicks all the kids out of the house—besides Beth. Then, for several months, the conman disappears with Beth and her mother, until Beth suddenly reappears in New York one day. Beth explains that the conman took her and her mother to the Southwest, then forced them to move from hotel to hotel because he thought the government was coming after him. He beat and threatened them constantly. Despite this, for several years after Beth’s return, the family didn’t hear anything from their mother. They started to deeply resent her. But one day, Rachel learned that her mother was living nearby, and she eventually decided to get in touch. When she did, she learned that her mother was full of guilt and regret about abandoning her children. She resolved to treat her mother with compassion and mercy.

Meanwhile, the family struggled to find the same compassion and mercy for Beth. As a teenager, she had a hard time adjusting to her new peers and responsibilities, and she started seriously rebelling once again. Her “escalating self-centeredness and manipulativeness” annoyed the whole family and made her intolerable when her father briefly found her a job. By her early twenties, she was living in her father’s basement, spending all her time watching TV. The family knew that this wasn’t sustainable but couldn’t decide what to do. Eventually, she agreed to do structured job training and move into a group home. But after a few years, she insisted on moving out on her own, and some time later, she started riding the buses. This is how she ended up living the life that she lives today.

Back in the present, Rachel starts finding a true sense of community through Beth’s network of friends and bus drivers. Rachel and Beth join Jacob and his family on a trip to the Jersey Shore. And when Beth has to undergo a major eye surgery, Jacob insists on tagging along and driving her and Rachel to the hospital. Meanwhile, Rachel also meets Bert, a semi-retired driver from New York City who uses humor to raise his passengers’ spirits, and Cliff, a strapping new driver who is Beth’s favorite because he races cars on the weekends. Rachel goes on a handful of dates with the driver Beth planned to set her up with, Rick. They get along wonderfully, but Rachel still knows that she doesn’t want another relationship yet. One day, while Beth and the driver Melanie chat about men on an empty bus route through the countryside, Rachel looks at her reflection in the mirror and realizes that she has cut herself off from the people around her. She resolves to give back, and she starts counseling the bus drivers through their family and career issues.

In December, Rachel’s last month of visits, she and the drivers Bailey and Rick decide to gift Beth a makeover. Beth looks gorgeous, but she doesn’t like her new style and quickly returns to her old one. The next morning, she and Rachel get into a serious argument because she’s reluctant to lend Rachel a towel. They still spend the day riding the buses, but they barely talk. In the evening, Rachel suggests that it’s time for her to stop visiting, and she returns home. But Beth sends her a series of apology letters over the next week, promising to change. Rachel decides to forgive Beth and return to visit her for her annual care planning meeting in January. But Beth doesn’t want to change anything: she’s happy with her life and the services she’s receiving.

After the meeting, Beth rides the buses, and Rachel spends the afternoon driving around town with Rick. They end up atop a mountain, overlooking Beth’s city, watching the buses snake through the streets. In her brief afterword, Rachel reveals that her time with Beth and the bus drivers allowed her to find love again: she reunited with her ex-boyfriend Sam, and they got married a year and a half after she finished writing.