Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Sort of Love Letter

For those of you who don’t know, I’m the oldest of three: I have brother who is almost three years younger and a sister who is ten years younger.  Like most sibling relationships, there have been/are contentious moments, but for the most part we love each other. More importantly, we like each other. One of the best things that has come out of this situation with my mother, is the big chunks of time I’ve been able to spend with my brother and sister. Sure, it has been chaotic and slightly annoying at times, but when the house empties out and everyone returns to his/her respective homes, I miss them.

I don’t really remember too much about those blissful 2 years and 10 months of sibling-less life, but I’m thinking I had it pretty good.I do remember visiting my mom in the hospital after my brother was born. In my memory, the room is dark and bluish—whether from paint or lighting, I don’t know. I felt nervous and uneasy seeing my mom in that hospital bed. And there he was, a little bundle taking up space in my mom’s arms. My dad was holding me, and I tentatively accepted a butterscotch candy (man, I loved those things as a kid) as a peace offering.

These things have a way of working themselves out, though, and my brother became my first friend. He was my partner in crime as we gently unwrapped the Christmas presents one year while my parents were out or as we thwarted one particularly terrible babysitter’s best-laid plans. He was a willing playmate who (usually) did what I told him to do (come on, we know I like to be bossy!). And for a long time, he was my biggest fan—he looked up to me, wanted to do what I was doing, and wanted to be where I was. This, of course, was alternately endearing and annoying.
But in turn, I was fiercely protective. For a span of time while we were kids, I’d wake up almost every night to make sure his blanket was on him because I had this bizarre notion that as long as the blanket was touching him, nothing would be able to hurt him. And once, when we were living in Hawaii—we were probably 5 and 3— a homeless man started hassling him while we were waiting for the bus (my dad was around FYI, so there was never any real threat). He kept trying to engage with my brother, saying that we could call him “Uncle Charlie.” My brother obviously felt threatened because he climbed up the bus sign pole (he was a monkey, that kid!) and started growling and barking (did I mention that my brother was also weird?). I didn’t care how big the man was or how unsettling he looked, I yelled at him to “leave my brother alone!” and told him that he was “NOT our uncle!” We were probably quite the spectacle. But we were a team.

Years later, my sister’s unplanned arrival shook up the family dynamic again. I’d asked my parents for years and years if we could have another baby, particularly a girl. They laughed. They told me no. And then one day when I was 10, my mom told me that she was pregnant. Weirdly, my reaction wasn’t what anyone expected. I cried. I wasn’t angry, exactly, I just have a hard time with change.* But in no time, I was elated. We spent time picking out her name (i.e. vetoing my mom’s TERRIBLE name choices), talking to her through my mom’s growing stomach and waiting impatiently. The morning she was born, my dad woke me up around 4:30 am and told me I’d have to get my brother and myself ready and off to school. Downstairs, I heard my mom tell my dad that they needed to leave because her water had broken. I was nervous, a little scared and really excited. So I waited until it was time to get up and woke my brother up to tell him that our sister was being born. We got ready for school, ate breakfast and headed off to the bus stop. My sister was born sometime shortly after 9 am, and my dad skidded in, late to my award ceremony, to give me the news. For the rest of the day, I couldn’t think about anything else but getting to meet her.

*Actually, I have a difficult time with the idea of change. I’m incredibly adaptable once it actually happens. It’s just that, well, I’m a worrier (yes, I know, you’re shocked), and the unknown always sends me into a bit of a tailspin.

With my sister, it was a different kind of love affair. We all loved her and doted on her. And we all agreed that she was the happiest, best-natured baby that ever existed; she was charismatic and hilarious even as a baby. I fed her, changed her diapers, put her down for naps and played with her at every opportunity; she was my very own real life baby doll. I’d rush home from school most days and creep up into her room to nudge her awake and then pretend like she’d just woken up on her own.* I adored her, and I tended to her with a certain maternal care—especially in those early years.

* I’m pretty sure my mom caught on to my tricks pretty quickly, and I’m not sure how she didn’t just kill me then. Now that I’m the mother of a fairly finicky sleeper, I’d seriously contemplate hurting the person who routinely woke my kid from his naps. Lucky for me, my sister was never crabby when I pulled this.

My own growing pains got in the way for a little while. And for a long time, I was in the closet with my sister because my mom asked (or rather, demanded) that I not tell my her about my sexual orientation until she graduated from high school.  So our relationship felt very much like it was in limbo for the greater part of her teen years and my early adulthood. Until very recently, I’ve carried around a lot of guilt for my absence in her life, even though much of it wasn’t in my control. I can’t tell you how often I felt pangs of remorse for those moments of missed connection between us when I could see that she was walking away crestfallen at my emotional distance—distance that I didn’t really know how to bridge. But this experience has changed the dynamic of our relationship in ways that I’m immensely grateful for.

With both of my siblings, I’ve always felt, somehow, light years older. It’s due, in part, to the kind of responsibility and expectation that comes with being the eldest, especially in my family. Perhaps some of it has to do with life experiences. And maybe other parts of it were born out of a certain necessity.  But for a long time now, I’ve played a particular role in our relationship. Since my parents have been out of the country for the past decade, my partner and I have been the stand-ins. We’ve been the go-to people for all kinds of life scenarios. I’m not lamenting this fact; I’m glad that we were able to be there in those moments, whether they were crises or accomplishments. I do think, however, that while playing the role of a parental stand-in, I forgot how to just be a sister.  So I expected, when we entered into this illness with my mother, that the roles would stay very much the same. And there have been moments where this dynamic persists, but I’ve found that things have begun to rearrange themselves between us; we’re finding a new kind of equilibrium. Sitting around late at night, laughing at my parents’ foibles, discussing their unflagging denial, and coming to terms with their paradoxical strangeness and familiarity has united us in a kind of solidarity. For now, at least, we are living in a different reality than they are and that binds us to one another. Beyond that, though, are the ways in which they have each made space for me during this time. You know, in the ways that I’ve been accustomed to making space for them—space for me to be the petulant child, the annoyed daughter, the exhausted parent, etc. We’ve begun, I think, to see each other as real people and as adults on common ground, rather than caricatures in some shared parody of a childhood. This time in our lives has been emotionally tempestuous in so many ways, but they have filled me with gratitude and affection. So, for the many ways that my brother and sister have enhanced my life with all their crazy-making, shit-starting, unwavering and big-hearted love, this is my sort of love letter to them. I’m so lucky to be their sister.   

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