I wish I had known you better

My older sister and only sibling would be 57 today. She died from cancer or its complications almost 10 years ago.

She was estranged from my mom and I for a few years before death, so by the time she reached out again it was because the breast cancer discovered (during the estrangement years) had spread to her bones. It was stage 4 and there wer few treatments left for her to explore. I was glad she reached out, but at the same time deeply saddened by the circumstances. I thought it might offer an opportunity to make our peace, know each other a little better in whatever time was left, and other than that initial phone call, I never heard from her again. I sent money, I left messages each month for the next 4, and none of my calls were ever acknowledged, my modest attempts to ease her final days with money unacknowledged. The only way I was sure she was getting my notes and checks was by her cashing them each month.

What I remember most about my sister in my childhood was our fights. While all siblings argue and fight, my earliest memories are of our screaming matching and the physical hair-pulling slap-fests that would periodically break out. It is with deep sorrow and shame that I remember defacing her high school year book – at 10 I was a mess – and I suppose I cannot really blame her for not liking me more during much of our youth. Our interests were different, we were very different in our outlooks and the ways our parents saw us, raised us. It was unfortunate.

As adults we both made mistakes in our personal lives, were stubborn in letting go of past hurts, slights, and disses. She had moved out of state when I was 15, and her subsequent trips home were like restarting the dysfunctional family dynamic all over again, like a broken record. My mother would be overjoyed she was coming home for a visit, favorite child and all, and then spend they would spend the duration of the visit arguing and fighting with each other, coming together as a united front in being critical of me. Once I left home I rarely visited when my sister was in town; once she and my mom would start their critisims or arguing with each other I left and refused to return. It was easier and harder when we both had children. GL was jealous that my kids were so much closer to my parents, and my parents were accustomed to having more control and say in behavioral standards while the kids were in their care. My sister, on the other hand, would have no one else disciplining or even correcting her boys, no matter how poorly they behaved.

When she died I did not attend her funeral, a slight for which my mother never really forgave me. In truth it was that while she was my sister by blood, she was a stranger to me. I barely knew her or her young adult children, and while I was sad she had died I was not grieving or even deeply upset. Our disconnect had grown so great that I rarely thought of her when I thought about my family, but by that time the same was true of my own mother. It is sort of jarring and in stark contrast to the relationships I have now with my own little family and extended family of close friends. Those who have known me since grade school are not at all surprised, but newer friends have asked me about the deep rift in my family of origin. It’s complicated, I always say, and it is that and so much more. I suppose they loved me in their own ways, only in a manner I could never completely understand, much less feel.

I always find myself thinking of her on her birthday, trying to remember good things about our growing up years and beyond. The struggle is not so much good times are overwhelmed by bad so much as I simply do not have many family memories, period. For good and valid reasons much of my childhood remains a blur, and what I have recalled I wish I could forget every time it crosses my mind.

I have to believe she is in a far better, happier place. She suffered in life, through poor choices and difficult circumstances. We are all products of our upbringing and environment, and what I know of her adult life could fit into a few sad paragraphs. As fortunate and as blessed as I am right now, I attribute a lot of that to hard work and being honest with myself about my strengths and weaknesses. I also never discount the kindness of friends and the strength and decency of my husband.

For my sister, I never wished her bad luck or had lingering ill will towards her. Mostly I wish we had been able to find more common ground or ways to bridge the big gaping chasm of our childhoods and become something akin to friends, if not better sisters. Now she is gone, another opportunity lost. While I gave up guilt and regret about family matters I could not change a long time ago, I still feel a twinge on her birthday and wish we had both tried a little harder.

Happy birthday, GL. I wish I had known you better.

6 thoughts on “I wish I had known you better

  1. This post makes me think of something that I think of often. What can I do as a parent to make sure that my son and daughter get along, love each other, appreciate each other as siblings long after we are gone? I never dreamed that my younger brother would violate me and I would be forever estranged from him. Sibling relationships are complicated and I want the best for them while being scared for them at the same time.

    Did your relationship with your sister affect your parenting? It sounds like your son and daughter get along well now.

    • I wanted my kids to be closer. Heck, I wanted a completely different family dynamic than what I enjoyed … which was more like people who just happened to live under the same roof.

      We did a lot of things together as a family when they were little-little, and as they grew up and began playing sports and making other friends I made it a rule that we had to have dinner together as a family every week. As they got older, life got busier, we shortened the “mandatory” nights of family meals to accommodate schedules, but I truly believe it makes a difference. Even now, we have one night each month when the kids come over with significant others, roommates, random friends in tow and share a meal. It is something we all look forward to and I truly believe it helps us stay close.

      I know my two frequently get together for a beer or dinner on their own and with their cousins, which is wonderful. We talk a lot, too, via text mostly, just checking in and sharing the big and small moments.

      My parents were never supportive of me or my interests. I made it a point to be present for my kids, and to instill in them the importance of being there for each other. As kids it was at their games, band events, plays and musicals, and anything else that interested them. Even now I go cheer my son and his gf and many of his friends in fun runs and marathons. If my daughter is working an SPCA or animal adoption event we will attend to show our support … and play with the really cute adoption animals. These sorts of things, it is not uncommon to run into or schedule to meet up with the other child at the same event.

      Long answer to a short question, I know. But as you said, sibling relationships are complicated. As parents we do our best to set them up and onto the right pathway, but it does not always work out as we expect or anticipate.

  2. My brother & I are like this… I think i’ve spoken with him about 2x in well over 10 years… i’ve tried, he doesn’t bother. So whatever… lol! Can’t choose your family can you?

  3. Hi Janelle, so glad you enjoyed the Pacific Northwest! I scrolled thru your posts and could not help but read this one, Boy oh boy can I tell you about some knock down drag out fights I have had with my sisters too. We still chat but very rarely and only when I visit. It is a strained time sometimes but we all seem to give it our best. Life is hard, family dynamics are strange. There is the saying that “family knows how to push your buttons because they are the ones who installed them!” Xoxoxo

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