It’s obvious to anyone who knows me or reads this blog that I will go on and on for days if you let me about sisters. And sisterhood. And the way that sisters, both biological and chosen, make my life better. And make the world better. And make everything, everywhere better.
My own sister is, undoubtedly, one of the most influential people in my life. Our relationship might seem confusing to an outsider who doesn’t understand sisters in general or us specifically, because we aren’t all that similar and yet we are very much the same and we are madly in love and often in conflict. Regardless of that kind of confusion, our mother, the mother of my sisterhood, taught us from the day Alley was born that we are meant to get along and cling to each other. And any ideas we have to the contrary are misguided. She didn’t teach this to us subtly, she said it outright. “A sister is the best kind of friend you can have.” “Don’t take your sister for granted.” Or more pragmatically: “Your dad and I will die and you two will be all you have.” Period. She is not one to mince words.
When we fought (fight), she feels physically ill. I can see it on her face. She pretends that it makes her mad, but I can see now, with the wisdom of age and as the mother of two growing sisters, that it actually makes her sad. Very sad. When I was younger and felt so entitled to my angst, this annoyed me. Can’t this woman even let me have my ANGST!? Now that I am older my angst is what annoys me and when we fight and make her sad I feel her sadness. And say I’m sorry. Because I am.
My mom wasn’t just pulling her sisterhood advice from thin air or parotting a parenting book, she was telling us her life experience. My mom is one of 3 girls (who followed one boy), a little sister the day she was born and a big sister later. Both my aunts played a large role in our lives when we were growing up, but I had the self-centered view of a child and saw them only as MY aunts. The aunt that always made me macaroni and cheese, the aunt that had a gnome garden, the aunt that taught me so much about the love of a mother, the aunt that showed me where my bitchy streak comes from. The aunt that extolled the virtues of short, practical hair. The aunt that extolled the virtues of flashy, impractical costume jewelry. I saw them as they related to me, but I didn’t have the perspective then to see them as my mother’s sisters.
My perspective started to change once I entered adulthood and my mom began to feel more comfortable showing me the real versions of her relationships. Or maybe I just became more able to see it? Either way. Her sisterhood became a more complete, three dimensional picture.
She talked more openly about an annoying conflict with a friend or an uncomfortable conversation with her sister. She let me in, bit by bit as I became able to understand and as I myself encountered more complicated issues in my own relationships, the real and messy nature of unconditional love. She helped me see that unconditional love actually does have conditions. Sisterhood love is unending, but not uncomplicated. And that’s when I realized (duh) that her relationships with her sisters began not at my birth (!?) but at hers. Serious Oprah-aha moment.
A few years ago, my mom’s older sister got sick. Cancer. And the prognosis was not the worst. And I felt pain as a niece, to be sure, but more pain as a daughter seeing her mother in pain. As an adult, in sharp contrast to the way I saw them as a child, the situation seemed almost nothing to do with me and all to do with them. My aunt and her fear of being alone. My mom and her fear of losing her sister. She and her younger sister pulled together, in the sisterly way, and cared for their older sister. They went to support her when things were hopeful. They, and my uncle, made a trip together when things went bad. And they were there with their sister as she died. Three sisters were two, and their pain was palpable. Their pain was over not only the loss of one of them, but their sorrow was caused by the pain in life their sister had endured. By the injustice of cancer. By the betrayal of loved ones. By that unbearable feeling that you could have should have might have been able to do more.
I never fully understood the relationships my mom had with her sisters. That they loved each other was clear. But as we all know by now that doesn’t make things simple. As a child, I felt confused by the way they could be so close and yet stand to be so far apart geographically. As an adult, I understood that distance is often inevitable, but I felt confused about the way the dynamic worked. Maybe my life of one sister was simpler than a life lived with two. Between my sister and I there was a straight line of communication. Between those three there was a triangle. I didn’t have enough experience to decode their encrypted language.
Last year my mother’s younger sister got sick. Or, perhaps more accurately, we found out she was sick. I suspect she knew for a while. Or at least had a sense. But she was still recovering from the previous years. She had lost her son. Then her older sister. And perhaps the symptoms she felt seemed just like symptoms of that grief. Anyone would understand. But eventually it turned out to be cancer. Aggressive.
For our entire family this news seemed like a nightmare too cruel to be true. I was worried and felt homesick and felt guilty and felt confused. I made calls and sent flowers and kept hope. I wasn’t there to keep vigil over my aunt, but my uncle and other loved ones did that so well. I decided for my part I’d keep vigil over my mother. And watch her, however helplessly, to make sure she was ok. If there is such a thing in such times. And my mother, for the most part, wasn’t ok.
My mom is by no means a cold person but she isn’t exactly a fountain of emotional openness pouring forth. I have a tendency for drama and weeping when pushed to the brink so I often felt confused in the way my mom could express herself. She could say things like about loss and death and sadness and pain in the same tone she could say ‘The weather is cold today.’ As a child I think I thought this was something broken inside her, but now I see she was protecting us from seeing her in pain. Because really, it’s very painful. And the only thing worse to think of than the pain of that kind of loss is to see your children experiencing it as well. A mother’s curse is to spend life wanting to prevent the unpreventable moments of her child’s pain. She knew, as we all know, that we can’t be kept from all sadness but she didn’t want HER sadness to add to our own. I get it now. I get it.
The months since she lost her second sister have been hard for her. Because there is a lot of joy to be had, a new baby arrive, another on the way, a happy family, our health, the sun every day, the lake we live beside, the love we share as a nuclear and extended family. But that joy isn’t enough, cannot be enough, to erase the truth of her loss. Her sisterhood is broken, irreparably. The group of people who knew her from the very start, an important cohort no matter how close or far you are from them, is that much smaller. The keepers of childhood memories and family secrets and painful pasts have slipped away.
And life goes on. And we keep moving. But something has changed in a permanent way.