Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sibling Alterations

I miss my sister. Ruth Anne lives only 70 miles away. But I miss her.

We go way back. In high school when the "cool" girls would avoid kid sisters like the plague, I always made sure my sister came along. Two years apart in age, we each had our own friends, but her friends were my friends and mine were hers. And we all mingled. A peer rebellion that surely kept me out of the right social circles. I didn't ignore the social boundaries of the teen world, I simply didn't see them. (Except one: talking to boys I had crushes on... but that's a completely different story.)

Looking out for my sister came naturally. Once, while out collecting for our paper route, a guy in only a towel tried to get us to come into the house. Ruth Anne, trust still fully intact, nearly agreed but I stopped her and firmly told the pervert that we'd come back when his parents were home as I pushed my sister down the driveway. When we reached the end of the driveway he called out, I reflexively turned around and he pulled his towel off. I pushed my sister into the street and instructed her not to turn around.

Some things were easier to take. Like when she was too young to go to concerts by herself, I drove her to see Rick Springfield. Twice.

We had our rituals. After our brother David* went off to college, there was one night each week when both our parents were away from home for the evening. Ruth Anne and I would take the money we were given to buy dinner and get something wholesome and nutritional like ice cream bonbons or Little Debbies. While watching "LA Law" we would proceed to eat the entire package of whatever treat we had purchased and destroy the evidence. Bonding through mini-rebellion.

But I'm no hero in this story. I did take care to uphold the older sibling responsibility to tease and torment younger ones. The meanest things I did to my sister in ascending degrees: Once after refusing to give up the front seat to me as she had promised, I retaliated with the focus of a seasoned martial artist and channeling all my energy into my finger, I flicked her ear. At the time I felt justified because words seemed an inadequate tool. Immature yes. In my defense, I was a teenager.

During high school one infamous showdown in the lunch room ended with me hauling out the big guns. Yes, to end a stereotypical teenage girl drama, I called my little sister a baby. Always fighting words to the youngest child in the family. I knew it. And I'm not proud. Never was. In our typical fashion though, we were over it by the end of the day, if not the by end of the week. I never did recall the topic of the argument.

My most heinous sibling torture came during Ash Wednesday mass, once again, while we were teens. Just before we stood to join the line to receive the ashes on our foreheads, I leaned toward my sister's ear and said, "you know where they get the ashes, don't you?" Wide-eyed she responded, "no." "They come from cremated bodies." I claimed confidently, as we filed away to get the ashes rubbed into our heads. She had always been my straight man, I the jokester. So I was sure she knew I was joking. I was wrong. She spent the next several years believing that.

Despite, or perhaps because of all that, we forged a strong friendship. So strong that when I left for college, a mere forty miles away in Dubuque, when we said goodbye you would have thought I had been exiled to the other side of the world. We knew that the separation would alter our relationship forever. As adults we stayed relatively close despite some physical distances. Most recently we lived together for eight years, until a little over two years ago when she moved out of my house and now, appropriately, she lives with her husband Bobby in Raymond, Iowa. Bobby is a good man and I love him. He loves my sister and treats her like the best thing that's ever happened to him. How can someone not respect and admire that in a brother-in-law? Life is good. I'm happy. They are happy. Still, as I drove home last Saturday after staying with Bobby and Ruth Anne for a few days it hit me hard that I miss her. Another alteration.

Before I really started feeling sorry for myself though, I thought of my friend Chris who had reminded me the week before that sometimes in life you have to be tough regardless of the circumstances. Just over a year ago, Chris lost his younger brother Robin to cancer. Chris describes theirs as a typical childhood relationship of our generation. A generation in which kids were more likely to go outside to play rather than stay inside to play video games, which were more often than not played in arcades rather than at home, when kids walked or rode their bikes to Little League or the pool rather than being chauffeured.

Chris and Robin were three years apart and also had their own circles of friends but were close. As adults physical distance kept them distant for a while but common interest in cycling brought them together. Now an eleven-year testicular cancer survivor, Chris bonded powerfully with his brother through their love of cycling. Then in the summer of 2005 Robin was diagnosed with stomach cancer. When it recurred the following summer with a grim prognosis Robin chose to discontinue treatment. Chris made the trip to visit his brother to say goodbye and to help put Robin's affairs in order. The last day of Chris' visit, the two brothers left the house at the same time; Chris to head home, Robin to a doctor appointment. At a t-intersection where their paths diverged Chris went his way and watched Robin go his. Chris broke down as he grasped that this sight of his brother driving away was the last... that he would never see his brother alive again. A few weeks later Robin died. Permanent alteration.

A close family member and her siblings gather for a similar journey next Saturday when their brother comes to Iowa to visit. Cancer brought about this bittersweet visit too. Their brother was diagnosed earlier this year with esophageal cancer. He underwent chemo and radiation all summer and then just prior to his surgery which would have been followed by radiation, his doctors discovered that his cancer had metastasized to his bones. Their brother had to choose between impending death with certain pain accompanied by the discomfort of more treatment or impending death with probable pain from the cancer but considerably less discomfort from treatments. Like Robin, he chose the latter.

After receiving the news, I shared with Chris who wisely advised me to respect the decision, fight like hell and leave nothing unsaid. I struggled briefly to realize that discontinuing treatment and fighting like hell are not mutually exclusive acts, therefore accepting and honoring this family member's decision. Still I haven't figured out the unsaid thoughts or feelings I need to get out before time runs out. So in the meantime I passed along that wisdom to my mom and to her brother in the hope that they can share and heal. Alterations in progress.

The youngest of four, this sibling moved far away after his high school graduation. First to southern Missouri, then Georgia and finally Florida. I suspect that his main reason was to escape their abusive father and break that pattern. End the abusiveness in that generation. By my estimates he and his wife have achieved award-winning levels of success here. My one visit to their home in Atlanta when I lived relatively nearby in Orlando revealed a typical happy family. This could be one of those things that needs to be said.

Baffled to now know that the man my siblings and cousins all knew as Boompa was an abusive father, I want these siblings to see that he was more than that. I can't excuse the abuse he imposed on them. And it is not my place to forgive him. But Boompa, had gifts as well. Until I learned of his abusive and abused past, to me he was simply a talented writer, storyteller, humorist and a loving husband to Nanny. My favorite memories of holidays include visits to Nanny & Boompa's where one family member would laugh so hard at his father-in-law's stories that his whole head turned red and veins popped out on his forehead. A man is more than his one great flaw. Even if his one great flaw is inexcusable and huge and brought immense pain, even to people he loved. And forgiveness is less for the person receiving it and more for the person giving it. This might be one more thing that I need to say.

So yes, I miss my sister. But she's still here with no indications of imminent death. (Knock on wood.) I can reach out and call or email or instant message her. I don't have to know that the next time I see her will be the last. And perhaps that is more tragic. For what might I be leaving unsaid? Shouldn't every parting be treated as gently and respectfully as if it were final? Or does that make life one long goodbye?

I don't know any of those answers, but I do know this, I am making "I love you" a more common part of my vocabulary.

*My brother David deserves more than a footnote but I'm still at a loss for words in describing this relationship. David is a seventeen-year testicular cancer survivor and fitting that into this story is like forcing a jigsaw puzzle piece in to a crossword puzzle. Apologies as necessary. I love this sibling as well. That's all the words I can use for this, at this moment.