Sunday, August 10, 2014

Between My Sister and Me: An Examination


Three years ago, I went across the country to visit my sister, in the house she had lived in for a month.It was a visit that had been carefully arranged, both in timing and duration. It was something we had talked about from the time she first bought her house, and it was a trip I looked forward to.

My sister and I have always had that peculiarly not competitive closeness that comes with being eight years apart. By the time she was ten, I had left home. I was married when she turned twelve. Our lives have always been on different schedules, until I turned sixty and she reached fifty-two. When our paths became similar, we lost the magic shield that had protected our relationship and we had a falling out that was bitter, vituperative, prolonged, and painful. When we finally made peace, we agreed that this debacle had made our bond even stronger, that we had learned we valued each other too much to ever again jeopardize what we shared.

There was a silence resonating from my sister in the weeks before I arrived on my visit that I tried to bridge with messages and phone calls. When she finally responded, she assured me that I should not postpone my trip, that she was having some minor difficulties with her husband but “that was part of being married.” She followed this up with an affectionate note, and I set off on the long plane ride from west to east with eagerness and no trepidation at all.

Within three days of my arrival, my sister followed me to the guest room and erupted. She told me that our vicious altercation was something that she had not gotten over and that things I had said during that time had “eviscerated” her. She told me how happy it made her that I now was overweight enough to wear the jeans that she disliked and had tossed aside. She told me how much she hated watching me and my sisters come to my mother’s deathbed when she had been the one with the sole care for a woman we had ignored during her life. She told me that being the one who cared for an aging parent had been a blight on her life, and that I didn’t choose or care to know what that had been for her. She told me that if she wanted, she could say things that would destroy me, a sentiment she had first passed my way five years earlier, when our sisterhood was first under attack.

Then she asked me not to leave. Within an hour she was blithe and perky, and I went to my room with a “headache,” and stayed there for almost 24 hours. I decided that if I left before my scheduled departure, it would probably be the end of our relationship. If I spent the remaining four days of my visit being as pleasant as possible, then left and gave this horrible episode time to cool down, my sister and I could have a chance to salvage what we both seemed to want—an adult friendship within the framework of being sisters.

It didn’t happen. Two days after I came home, my sister put up a sentence on Facebook saying Ben Franklin was right. Nobody but the two of us would know that at the beginning of my visit, her husband had made what I hoped was a joke about visitors and dead fish stinking after three days. I said I “liked” it and she took it down, knowing the point had been taken. A day later, when I told a friend on that same venue that I hoped I never heard another accent from South Carolina, my sister responded with the proclamation that I was a hypocrite and she never wanted to hear from me again. Two days after that I received a card she had written before she disowned me, telling me that she had enjoyed my visit.

Now it was my turn to feel demolished and I have been, as well as confused. It’s taken me this long to sort through what was given to me during my stay in South Carolina. During these months, I’ve written very little and have given myself a lot of kindness, enjoying the summer without stint. Even so, as I write about this dissolution, I gasp for breath and feel a knot tightening in my left shoulder. This hurts.

From things my sister had said, she may well be going through menopause, which means I should take it all with the saltshaker full of saline grains that diatribes coming from that state deserve. That she refers to herself as being fat and boring, without the gifts that she feels her sisters have been given, is ludicrous coming from a woman who writes beautiful, insightful essays and takes lyrical photographs. It also shows a self-loathing that is very, very sad.

The weight that she worked to lose over the year after our mother’s death, she told a friend, was put on in response to the burden of the care that she had shouldered alone. That she put on most of it when Mother was still vital and independent seems to have been forgotten. If it happened because her sisters left her to cope with an aging parent alone, why then it’s our fault. And so are the drooping flaps of flesh that have been left behind by the weight loss, and the fact that my sister moves heavily, as though the hundred pounds are still with her. And so is the inactivity that her fat condemned her to for years—all my fault, and her other sisters’ fault.

I could just as easily excoriate my sister for taking control of my mother’s life when the woman we all loved was still active, able to travel, in possession of a driver’s license. This was not a decision that any of my mother’s daughters took part in. My youngest sister deliberately made herself the sole arbiter of my mother’s fate, and it could be argued, hastened its end by taking away my mother’s independence, bit by bit.

Right up until the very last breath, my sister refused my offers to stay with our mother or my pleas to look into other forms of care. She ran the show. She insisted I visit at the end, even though both my mother and I had agreed we never wanted that, and I went as a gift to her, which she later threw back at me in anger. She doled out the meager bits of my mother’s life after she died with rigid control. She locks away the relationship she had put a stranglehold on for years. And now she blames it all on other people.

I tried very hard to be a support to my youngest sister when my mother began to die, and I’m the one who has been violently and decisively divorced. “It makes me laugh and laugh,” my father used to say about situations that left him feeling shafted. I wish I could say the same, but instead this makes me ache. Once again, I face a death, but this time the person who has left my life is still breathing. I will always miss her, even as I recognize how dangerous she can be.

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