Friday was my birthday. It was nice to wake up to birthday messages from family and friends on my Facebook page. One of the nicest messages was from my sister. Never one for sentimentality, she surprised me by posting a photo of the two of us. She was probably less than a year old; I was five or six. Underneath the photo she wrote, “Happy birthday to my big sister! I’m lucky to have you as my sister and my friend!”
You’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s nice, but what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that it has been quite a journey for us to get to this point.
My sister and I have different temperaments, and for many years we had different friends, different interests – and a few frosty differences between us. Ours was a prickly relationship. I teased her relentlessly when we were kids, enjoying the ability to terrorize her. She still recalls the stories I told her about the witch who lived in the wall next to her bed, and my sinister warnings that the old crone would come out and eat her if she should fall asleep. She attributes this abuse to her inability even now to get a good night’s sleep.
I made up all sorts of stories to horrify her. I had no idea she would remember them years later. She enjoys reminding me that I once told her she was a robot who just appeared to be human, and that our parents purchased her from a traveling salesman from outer space who specialized in refitting old robots into new, almost human bodies. I have a vague recollection of this – her breaking into tears, and my mother yelling at me for ‘scaring the baby.’
It’s tough work being the big sister. Especially when the little sister threatens to send the bills for her ongoing therapy to you for payment.
Even so, I can’t be too hard on myself. I figure I must have done something right because she is now a very bold and self-confident person. I like to think I toughened her up for the real world. I, on the other hand, am pretty boring, and much happier blending into the woodwork. Perhaps I needed a big sister to spin a few frightening tales my way. It might have made me tougher.
During our young adult years, we didn’t see much of each other. We just weren’t that interested. We weren’t close. Our conversations were rather like maneuvering one’s way across a minefield. You never knew when one or the other of us would say something that would blow up in our faces.
I was having a conversation with my best buddy a few days ago. We drifted into a discussion about the ego, and she explained that our egos fluctuate at any given moment between three roles: parent, adult and child. When we converse with others, these three aspects of the ego come into play. Perfectly innocent remarks may set us off and cause us to react either authoritatively (parent), maturely (adult), or immaturely (child). It is not so much what the other person is saying as much as it is what we bring to the conversation – our fears, failures, hopes and dreams – that causes us to put a spin on things not intended by the speaker. Then, before you know it, there is conflict.
When you think about conversations as transactions between people that can set off unintended consequences, it makes you wonder if it wouldn’t be better to be a hermit rather than risk tripping over one of those explosive conversational land mines.
My sister and I had to learn to cautiously maneuver around the hidden mines just waiting to trip us up. Fortunately, we were good pupils.
In the end, what brought us back together was my father’s terminal illness. We began to talk more often, and one sad day the two of us went to the funeral home to make preparations for our dad’s impending death. It was a very difficult thing, listening to the funeral director, discussing the arrangements. At one point, he led the two of us into a room filled with a variety of burial caskets. After giving us a lengthy sales pitch about one casket – a sky blue affair with a satin lining with a sewn pattern of flying geese – he left us alone to decide which casket to pick.
My sister looked at me. “Definitely not the blue one. Dad isn’t a hunter.”
Something came over me, a need to lighten the mood. “I don’t know… I kind of like the pretty blue color.”
“Really?” I could hear the disbelief in her voice.
“Really,” I said with a straight face. “It looks kind of small, though. Tell you what, why don’t you climb in real quick, lay flat, and we’ll see if it’s big enough.”
For a moment, she just stared at me, her eyes wide. Then we both broke into laughter. First the laughter, then a few tears.
Sometimes in the sad moments, you have to look for the laughter. It’s what keeps you going.
Since then, we’ve shared a lot of moments together. Some have been wonderful while others have been not so good. We’ve watched our mother’s slow decline into dementia, and the challenges all three of us face as a result.
It’s good to have a sister. It’s good to have someone who has been with you most of your life. Someone who experienced the things you remember from childhood. When we were small, my mother used to say to us, “Be nice to each other. Sisters should be the best of friends.” I don’t think we understood that back then. We were too busy fighting. I think you need to get some years behind you before you treasure the people who have been with you since the beginning. They understand why you’re crazy at times. They get what drives you – and what can crush you.
My sister and I do lots of things together now. We are no longer reluctant siblings. We are friends. Close friends. Some people never find their way back to each other. It can be a hard journey.
It’s a journey worth taking, however.
My sister says she’s lucky to have me as both sister and friend. I feel the same, but I like to think it is grace that healed our relationship, not just luck. It’s such a gift when people can come together, renew old ties, form stronger bonds. It’s grace that allows people to let go of the past. It’s grace that fortifies them for the future.
Of course, I don’t say all that to my sister. I just grin and say, “I’m lucky to have you, too.”