Thursday, December 3, 2015

Say the Words

My sister and I did not have a Hallmark card relationship, a sisterhood marked with whispered late nights and secrets kept and us against the world bonds. For most of my childhood, it was me on one side of the sibling equation and my brother and sister on the other. I was the eldest by a margin that wasn’t outrageous distance but was heavy enough weight to sink a space between us that felt at times like a chasm. My brother and sister, only two years apart to my six and four years older, respectively, were the sibling pair of stories and movies and sentimental quotes about brotherhood. They shared a similar space in time, their childhood was more similar to one another than to mine, they had the same interests in sports and music and partying and beautiful women.

Through no fault of anyone in particular, but through a convergence of family dynamics and socioeconomics and mundane fault lines of divorce and child custody, our sibling group was defined in Part One by my being the eldest caretaker of the younger ones, and in Part Two by my staying behind in our hometown with our mother as they went off to the big city to live with our father. I graduated high school and went off to college when my sister was just beginning high school; my brother was not even in junior high. In more ways than I can or care to recount, it was almost, almost but not quite, as though we came from two different families. The context in which we became adults was so radically different, layered on top of the early divisions and necessary separations and sometimes painful realizations of our differences, that it was inevitable that we would find ourselves so wildly and widely scattered.

All I really knew how to do in relation to my siblings was take care of them- I didn’t know how to be a playmate when we were younger because I was washing their socks and brushing their hair and telling them to do their homework. I didn’t know how to be a confidant as we got older because I was shouting at them to hurry up and get in the car or we’d be late; we were fighting on the bus over the chores they had to do when we got home; I was begging them to get out of bed when the alarm went off; I was ranting like an angry mother when they didn’t help me do the dishes or take out the trash. When we went our separate ways and separate houses in high school, the last chance of building a shared childhood that resembled what most would consider normal fell into those three hours between us and I barely knew enough to grieve it because, shamefully, a part of me was relieved to no longer share in the responsibility of caretaking and the endless low level bickering and dividing lines.

We fumbled together while I was in college doing the best we could with what we had- a shaky foundation filled with such radically different paradigms and perceptions of our parents and our respective experiences. My sister was right down the street but I don’t remember spending much time together. When she graduated high school and I graduated college I tried to connect with her in the only way I knew how- with college advice and offers of help on filing out the FAFSA, suggestions for colleges and plans and degrees. I felt that I finally had something valuable to offer to her. I felt like a boy approaching a girl he had been trying to impress for so long, with something he finally thought might work. And this didn’t work. Our conversations around that summer after she graduated were hostile, angry. We fought. I told her if she didn’t get her shit together it would be too late; she told me to stop being such an uptight bitch and thinking I knew everything. I remember one afternoon in the slanting light of a Brownwood summer day when I stood up from the kitchen table after she told me to fuck off. I told her I wasn’t going to help her anymore. I didn’t. I headed off to Japan a month after that, with my sister and I back on normal terms- which was familial loyalty and love but nothing approaching a real friendship or comfortable companionship.

What Japan gave me was a distance from my upbringing that helped me to see how I could actively repair damage. When I was home, in Texas, so close to these people I loved and fought, when I had my deeply ingrained reactions to them and to their personalities, when we were in our years long carefully carved ruts, I simply couldn’t rise above that pattern and see how circular it was- I couldn’t see the path out, the way to walk out of that dysfunction, to rise above it. I didn’t see how I could change to fix it. Half a world away, with stacks of journals filled with my cramped late night writing, halfway through my year away, I saw that what had never been done between my sister and I, what I had never tried, was to just speak to the things that we both carefully never, ever spoke about. She knew what had happened. I knew what had happened. We knew the other knew- and we never, ever spoke about it, or how it affected us so deeply and yet so differently. No one gets out of a childhood without some damage, but my sister and I sat across from one another in our lives and politely looked at one another’s scars and pretended they didn’t exist.  Where we were missing parts that made us unable to do and be certain things, we were cruel- we pretended we couldn’t see the injury, and attacked the weakness as though it came from nowhere. We knew where it came from, but we pretended to forget. I think we wanted to make it go away; but when something you want to forget is buried inside the skin of your sister, what does that make you do? How do you love one another when you are wrapped in things you don’t want to know?

So in the absence of anything else, in the face of an insurmountable obstacle, I had nothing but what was in my head and my heart. I had nothing to give but a reckoning and a recollection. I did the only think I knew how- I wrote my sister a letter. I went through every pivotal experience I could remember, all the points where I remember feeling a palpable cleaving, a line drawn, a stake driven down marking the path that took us away from each other. All the resentments that built from our different experiences. All the times when I had fucked up due to trying too hard to fix something by proxy. All the moments when I had let my insecurities take over, my frustrations drive the conversation. It took me two weeks to write that letter. I cried over that letter. I was so embarrassed that the thought of sending it to her sometimes sent me into shudders of revulsion at how vulnerable it felt to imagine her reading it. I didn’t know how she would take it. I edited it a thousand times and re-read it more than that. I prayed and meditated about what to say. I was sick over that letter. I lost sleep over it. I felt like I was building a fragile and paltry house from scratch with my bare hands, desperately hoping it would be enough to shelter us both while we figured out how to live together as sisters. I ended it with telling her that just because our situation was not conducive to building a strong bond as children, I wanted to take responsibility for it now that we were both adults. I wanted us to choose each other. I wanted her to know that I desperately, for always, had wanted nothing more than to be her sister and I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to have that bond. I sought her, over and over, in every line. It was beseeching and it was everything I had in me. It was dark and honest and terrifying to see out in black and white, exposed. The subject line was an attempt at levity: “Heavy Lifting- Bend at the Knees.”

I sent it and felt like I had reached inside myself and opened a door to expose all the soft parts to whatever might happen. I was casting a net into that wide space between us. I waited for what I didn’t know to expect.

When she wrote me back, I saw the subject line- “Knees Weren’t Meant to Bend that Way”. And even before I opened her e-mail, even before I read a single line, I knew we were finally okay. I read her letter at least 10 times as soon as I received it. I felt, for the first time, what it meant to have her as my sister- not to be her sister. To have her as my sister. To be had by her as a sister. To finally understand one another and to have everything fanned out before the other, a careful, intricate inventory. We had the freedom to look and ask and see, really see, for the first time. Just as if the previous contention had never existed, when I came home we slid into the new space we had made for each other, together, independent of our parents or our homes or our experiences. We had purposefully carved into ourselves a place to put our bond, and having that, finally, was outrageously comforting. We never spoke of that letter again. We didn’t have to.

Six years later, when my sister died, my cousin came to me and gave me a handwritten letter. She told me it was important that I read it, that I know what my sister had thought of me. It had been found in her things while the apartment was cleaned out. I opened the pages, read the first line, and saw that it was the same letter my sister had e-mailed me back in Japan- but it was twice as long. Because it was a rough draft, filled with writing and re-writing, editing and scribbles and scratches and repetitions used to seek out the perfect turn of phrase. Notes filled the margins, her arched handwriting jumping down the sides. The pages were soft, turned over, touched and re-touched. I remembered how I had agonized over my letter to my sister, and I held in my hands the evidence of her exact same struggle to find those words to knit us together, to respond to me in just the right way. That she had done it spoke to the similar ways in which we had both approached that situation; that she had kept it after six years spoke to a level of love and connection that gave me more comfort than absolutely anything else ever could possibly have given me in those days after she died.

If my sister had died without those two simple letters being exchanged, I don’t know how I could have begun to recover from her loss, because I would have been tortured with the knowledge that I had lost a sister I had never been able to have. These were only words- words on a page, on a screen, on a sheaf of looseleaf notepaper in an apartment in Dallas, tucked into a notebook under a futon in Japan. My sister and I healed years of distance and separation and pain with something as simple as words strung into sentences that mapped out our insides so we could finally show them to each other and learn who we were. We were born together through two letters. When she died I knew exactly who I was losing- and knowing the exquisite, detailed nature of the treasure of who she was, and what I was losing, was something I would never have had without our mutual courage in finding the words to give to one another.

Today is my sister’s 29th birthday. In honor of her birthday, and in remembrance of her passing, all I ask of any of you reading this is take an inventory of yourself and the people in your life. What have you not said, or asked, or questioned, that could heal you or someone in your life? It’s only words. It costs you nothing to say them, to write them, to send them. Say the words. Give them to the people who need to hear them- positive or negative, however hard they are. Please don’t deny yourself the opportunity to more fully know, and love, and connect to those around you. Don’t continue to suffer needlessly under misunderstandings, however long they have tangled you up in confusion and resentment. You might leave this world having never heard, or said, the things you need to know or share. I want you to get to the point where you can’t bear that thought, and let that give you the courage to take action.

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