True story: If you mess with the youngest sister, there is always the older crazier sister behind her that you definitely don’t want to screw with.
I have two younger sisters. The youngest, Sarah, is six years my junior. A a child, I would vacillate between barely tolerating Sarah and ignoring her all together. To this day, I have absolutely no interest in babies and the slightly older version, the dreaded toddler. For me, they are boring, loud and needy. As I entered my teenage years, I grudgingly started to like her, which now as an adult, makes absolute sense to me. Once children turn nine or ten I enjoy spending time with them because they are more autonomous, IF they have been parented by the NON Apache Helicopter type. It was at this time that I became more like a parent-friend to Sarah, mainly because our own mother never showed much interest in doing fun girly things (in her defense, she was basically the only one holding the family together, so she was a LITTLE distracted), and because our father was an asshole that did absolutely nothing with us as it would interfere with his drinking, gambling and whore mongering…but, that’s an entirely different blog post…..another time perhaps…
I would take Sarah shopping, take her to movies, to the beach, drive her where she needed to go and basically look out for her. Despite the age gap, we were very good friends.
As I moved into adulthood, we were alternately close, then not so close, then close again (she moved in with Tim and I), then not so close and then around 2000, when I was 39 and Sarah was 33, all ties between us were pretty much severed. We were not geographically nearby at that time. In 1996 I had left Ontario (which is where Sarah has always lived) for Calgary, Alberta, and then it was on to San Francisco, and by the time 2000 rolled around, we were living just outside of Cincinnati. It was not hard forgetting about her. Hold on, forget might be the wrong word. Perhaps more like just not thinking about her. I don’t write that to hurt Sarah or to have my small readership gasp in horror at my callousness. It WAS just true for me, and I want to be honest. Yes, I know I am a horrible person.
I had tried so hard to have a connection with her, but Sarah just made it too difficult, and at the time, I felt that I should not have to work so damned hard for any relationship. I felt betrayed by her, and most importantly she had made it clear to me that I could only be in her life if I did things her way. Remember, this is MY perspective. I’m sure if you asked Sarah, she’d tell you that I was just way too judgmental, rigid, insensitive and unchangeable. Yep, sounds about right. I do find it very easy to walk away, with absolutely no regrets, from people who don’t add to my life, and at that time, Sarah fit that criteria.
I will admit that to this day I very rarely see grey areas. Black and white is my preferred color scheme. In other words, FOR ME (I really always feel the need to emphasize that, so no one goes off half cocked) when you get to the very core, the very beating heart of things, there is either a right or a wrong. (Good or evil, if you’re a Stephen King fan). Interestingly enough, Sarah felt it necessary to also cut off her relationship to our other sister, Wendy. I have no idea why, and I still don’t know to this day. Maybe I’ll ask.
We moved back to Canada at the end of 2002 and the estrangement continued, despite my mothers feeble attempts at getting us to reconcile. It was hard to follow my mother’s advice when she herself was splitsville from her own younger sister. I’d run into Sarah at the hospital occasionally, as our mother spent months there in 2005 after her kidney transplant went all wrong. We would exchange pleasantries and we could always agree on our mothers anxiety levels and how she was testing the limits of the nurses patience. Beyond that though? Nothing. Again, I was fine with that, and as far as I knew, so was Sarah.
I continued with my life, once again moving back to the US in 2011 and then back to Canada in 2014. In April of 2015 our mother died, bringing us all back together again. No funeral or burial arrangements had been made prior to my mothers death, despite assurances from our mum and step-dad that they had been. This necessitated us all working together, including a sister from England, to pull something together in just two days so that said sister from England, Lindsey, could attend the service and be supportive to her father. Two weeks later, my step dad had a stroke which once again brought us all together. It wasn’t formally stated and no one got any engraved invitations to a reconciliation, but we were all talking. We were not having sleep overs or shopping dates, but we were all communicating and getting along well. Old grievances and petty issues no longer seemed important or relevant, so like most families that don’t operate normally, we just ignored the elephant in the room and just got along.
Dysfunctional? Okay. Guilty. Honestly, at the time, for me, it just didn’t seem important enough to talk about because we had all moved so far beyond the original hurts and misunderstandings. Besides, we had an 80 year old man to deal with that had a serious stroke, needed rehab and required a physical move to be closer to family. In other words, we had bigger fish to fry.
Sarah was extremely helpful during this time. I could never have gotten our step dad organized and moved to his new assisted living facility without her. We laughed, cried and reminisced about mum and dad. (I should state here that we often call our step dad, dad. Mainly because of the whore mongering biological dad) Between the two of us, and Tim, we got everything organized, packed and moved over to his new place in two days. We are superstars!!! We had Dad all tucked in to his new place, right by the water, at the end of June 2015.
As all my readers know by now, on September 17th, 2015 I was told I had rectosigmoid cancer, and this, patient and uncomplaining reader, brings us to the actual point of this particular post. FINALLY!!!
How would a sister who had been estranged from my life for the past fifteen years react to this news? How would she feel? What would she do? I called Sarah with a strange sense of being out of my body. It did not seem real to me that I was actually making the call. I felt I was jumping off a cliff.
I had no idea what she would say and how she would react. To be honest, I can’t really remember the call very well. By then I was on anti-anxiety medication so I would not explode into a million tiny splinters of petrified Gail, and it was really screwing with my memory….constantly.
A few weeks ago, this memory lapse got me remembering (which is an ironic turn of phrase) that a reader from South Africa had given me an idea for a blog post. I got, as Oprah would say, an “aha” moment.
This reader had emailed me that he would find it interesting if I blogged about what my family went through and how my cancer had affected them. I thought…errmmmmmm, okay, BUT that might be predictable. It occurred to me that stories like that had already been written. Close loved ones and their reactions, blah, blah, blah. What became immediately interesting to me, as a writer and a reader, was the dynamics presented by a family member that had NOT been close for fifteen years and what THEIR feelings might be. Conflicted? Torn? Angry? Scared? That has more appeal to me, and would be more real. What I wanted, if I was going to write this, was something much more interesting and ultimately more compelling than the typical loved ones reaction. As well, this might be the very opening that we needed to sort though our past and move on towards a future based on truths and openness.
So to that end I went all Barbara Walters (without the batshit crazy, the speech impediment, and fawning attitude) on her and did an interview with my own sister. The only caveat was that she be completely honest. The good, the bad and the ugly, as she put it herself. Really, I can prove that as I kept the text she sent me with those very words. Anyway….now to the
lurid juicy details, starting with my first question……..
Sarah, what was your biggest challenge, if any, that you faced when you were told by me that I had cancer?
My biggest challenge right at the moment you told me, was not to cry. I knew that immediately, because you needed me to just listen. I also instantly thought, Jesus! I just got you back in my life and now you potentially could die and, just like mum, be out of my life, leaving just Wendy and me. I was scared for you and interestingly enough, never disconnected. After our phone conversation, I took a moment in my room as we had company that day and I knew I needed a minute to process what I had just heard from you. I was overwhelmed with fear as it took me right back to the hospital on April 22nd at mums death bed. I then just cried for mum and then you, and then I think me as well.
Did our fifteen year estrangement ever make you feel weird about being included in such a dramatic life event? In other words, was it ever awkward for you because up until mum died you were not a part of either my life or Wendy’s?
Awkward? Yes…. for lots of different reasons. You and Wendy were so close and I did not want to step on anyone’s toes when I suggested I take you to any appointments. I wanted to just be an alternative solution while not getting in the middle of your relationship. It was tough to watch the two of you at mums funeral, it was tough to see my side of the family and not feel as close as I do to Kim’s side. It was tough to leave the funeral knowing everyone was headed back to your place, even though I knew I really did not want to go. It was only through our step dads stroke that we became closer because of needing to take care of him and have that constant communication about him. When you told me about your cancer, so much had happened between us in a relatively short time that I felt no disconnection. I felt the complete opposite, a bigger connection…I just didn’t know how I would fit into it all between Wendy and Tim. Luckily the awkwardness faded and it became easy, like the years in between faded a bit. It was you we all needed to focus on and not how we felt about who took you to what appointment.
How did you feel about attending doctors appointments and procedural tests? Was it a burden or a non issue, and did you feel useful?
I think, because I had been out of your life for so long I felt guilty a lot of the time, so going to appointments with you, for me, was a no brainer. I would go with you not because you needed me but because it made me feel like I was being a sister, a feeling that is different than a friendship. It made me feel like I was giving back to you for the time I missed. It made me feel closer to you and I liked that feeling that you wanted me with you.
Was it hard to balance your work and primary family obligations with my sudden need for help?
Kim is amazing and it was nothing to make you the priority, even though I knew that Kim had her apprehensions because she did not want me to get hurt or see me sad. Kim only knew what I told her about you so she may have had a slightly skewed opinion of you. I know it was strange for her to see me drop everything to assist you when you needed me but she knew how much I missed my sisters. Kim has two brothers and she understands that it’s just what you do for family, no matter what that family may look like. Work was easy. I explained what was happening and for the most part, all your appointments met with my schedule. I will say that I did not want to leave you after each appointment and have to go to work. I just wanted to hang out with my sister, not because you had cancer and I felt sorry for you, but because I really felt like we were connecting and I did not want it to stop. Even as I write this I tear up because I remember what we were like when we were kids. You toted me everywhere with you; shopping, movies, even the time when you and a friend tried to make me look older so I could get into a disco with you!! Anyway, for me weaving you into my routines or schedule was easy. You just took priority, no matter what had taken place in the past, you needed me and I desperately wanted to be there for you.
Did you feel you had to manage your emotions around me or could you be yourself? Maybe bit of both?
I did not have to manage my feelings around you. I wanted you to feel like you could be real with me and not hide how scared you were. I showed you my true self: tears, laughter or just listening. I was annoyed with those around you that did not let you just be. I had a weird feeling of wanting to control that, just screaming….”Let her cry for God’s sake! She’s got cancer”!
Were you ever scared? When and why?
I was terrified when you first told me because I knew our biological father had died of cancer, specifically this type of cancer. It’s in our family and if not caught in time, you could die as well. I was scared again when we saw Dr. Stephens for the first time, not knowing what he would say to you after looking at the CT scan, and lastly scared when you went for the operation that took the cancer from your body. I internalized my fear and I was scared for me too. Would I lose my sister after just reestablishing a relationship…really? How stupid would that be, and pointless!
Were you ever annoyed? When and why?
Yes. Pissed off would be a better description. Pissed off with myself that we could not find a way back to each other before this, that you might be taken away from me again. Pissed off that I felt so guilty about not being in your life and pissed off with you as my big sister for not taking the time before to reach out to me and insist that we sort it out. All that time wasted! Birthdays, Christmas’s……mostly I was annoyed with myself but I did project some of that on you and this stupid ass cancer….literally ass cancer….that was going to decide for both of us whether or not we would continue this relationship I so desperately wanted to have with you.
How did this event change you, if at all? Has it made you look differently at your own health? Do you worry more, less, the same amount or not at all? Did it change you in ways other than the health aspect?
From a being in charge of my own health perspective, I will never put off any doctors appointment again. I will listen and do as directed by my doctor. I am paying more attention to exercise and I know that I will slowly get into a routine as I have in the past. I am thinking more about how I will maintain it. If I allow myself to think about what could have happened to you, I can easily get carried away. I worry that the cancer could come back in a different form within you. It’s in our family.
How did you feel I handled things?
I think there were times I could see you spinning, going too far into the future which I know was your anxiety. I think if everyone would have let you feel the normal feelings you had, the less spinning you would have done. From my perspective, (I wasn’t there all the time), I thought everything you felt and every emotion, even wanting to talk about your cancer ALL THE TIME was, quite frankly, normal….it’s bloody cancer!!!! Your fear at the tests, every appointment all….normal!!!
How do you think YOU handled the whole thing? Is there anything you would go back and change?
I handled your cancer in the only way I knew how. It was your cancer and I was simply there to hear you and support you, let you feel everything you were feeling and not tell you everything was going to be OK because that may not have been true. I wasn’t going to tell you not to cry or get too emotional or tell you to calm down. I actually think I came back into your life at the most perfect time. You needed me as much as I needed my sister back. I would handle it in the exact same way. I gave you what you needed, when you needed it.
If you had an opinion on things and how they were going, did you feel you could speak up?
I felt like you sought out my opinion and that you listened to me and often validated what I had to say to you. For example, when I said lets just take each appointment as it comes, this is the process and we will do each thing together, you agreed and then stopped spinning ahead. You brought me into this and I had no problem stating my opinion.
Did you ever feel a role reversal based on youngest versus oldest sibling? If you did, how did that make you feel?
I did feel that way, me taking care of you but like I said before, I felt so guilty of the gap in time that we had missed together that I loved that role. I could give back to you. I wanted you to know that I was in this 100% and that I cared and in fact loved you so much that I could take on a more nurturing role but still be your little sister.
Did you feel your voice was being heard when we had discussions? Did you feel appreciated? Was there anything new you learned about being a sibling during this process?
I always felt I was being heard. I just said things that came up naturally, and if for any reason you didn’t hear me or want to take any advice, at least I had said it. It would be up to you after that. It’s a strange thing to be appreciated for something that you should just do. Yes, I felt appreciated but if you had not appreciated me I would not have cared because you had cancer in your body and the focus was on you and making sure you got through each part of the process of getting the cancer out of your body. At the end of the day I was actually pretty selfish because every time I helped you it eased the guilt of missing so much time with you and Wendy, as well as her kids and even Tim. Karma, in the end, will let me know what I did for you was the right thing. For me the sad thing is that I can never replace the fifteen years apart from you but I can learn from it and understand I don’t have to like everything about you but I certainly love you and want to be there for you when you need it….I feel no more guilt now. I feel only happiness. Happy that I can call you and talk to you anytime I want, happy that the stupid ass cancer didn’t take you away and happy for the future.
Well, let’s move on then, Sarah……
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What a great read Gail! I honestly believe you have a book in you! Love & huge healing hugs coming your way my friend
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I think I might have a book in me as well, Linda! Thank you for being such a loyal reader and for letting me know what you think. I’ve always valued your opinion, going all the way back to my step classes, where if you liked my new choreography, then I was gold.
Wow … moving read. So reminds me of the exact same thing I went through with my brother Guy (the estrangement; the little sister shit; the fucking cancer). I went a little commando in the “just let me cure you” stage though … but I was also there when he needed me most of all. Well done you guys, well done.
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