In high school I took a creative writing class and my teacher had us practice writing all different types of poems. One type was a “name poem” where we had to describe a person poetically by saying what their name reminded us of. I wrote about the women in my family. Here is the stanza I wrote about my sister:
I will say Kristen because she reminds me of flapping butterfly wings, and snowmelt streaming with laughter as it carves a spring path through green foliage.
Kristen is the sun that shines yellow warmth on cold, grey earth.
She is the licorice tea that soothingly coats the back of your through.
And she is the duckling that becomes a swan.
My poetic prowess notwithstanding (ha!), what was clear then that remains true now is how dearly I love my sister. She is still a comfort to me. She is still warm and bright. She still has a joyous spirit. And even though she’s a grown-up swan, sometimes I still can’t help but want to protect her like a baby duck.
It’s not entirely my fault, I learned to be a helicopter-sister early. When my mom brought Kristen home from the hospital, she told me she was my baby and I took that seriously. Before Kristen was verbal, I used to speak for her, “no, mom, Kristen doesn’t want a banana, she wants apples…” It came from a place of love. I wanted things to be perfect for her. I wanted her never to hurt.
Our relationship has shifted several times over the course of our lives. As children we were playmates and comrades. In young adulthood we became friends. But even in friendship, we retained an older-sister/ younger-sister dynamic. I was still hitting life stages before she was. I still had a surplus of knowledge to share. I still wanted to make sure she avoided that damn banana. Then she became a mother.
The day my nephew was born my little sister transformed before my eyes. She was still my friend, but she was also something new, something I wasn’t. Our dynamic shifted. I no longer had advice to offer. Instead, I marveled as she entered a life phase ahead of me. Instead, I learned from her for a change and wanted to follow in her footsteps.
But, while she grew her family through two more pregnancies, I suffered my six losses, and our relationship readjusted. In recent years we have lived vastly different experiences. Sometimes it has been hard to relate to one another. There have been messy feelings involved. I didn’t feel like anyone – even my butterfly-licorice-tea-sister – understood my pain.
Our parents did not have a happy marriage. We heard a lot of arguing when we were little, and it would make Kristen scared. She used to crawl into bed with me and I would hug her, and we would both feel better. It was us against them. We refused to be divided even if they were. Maybe that’s why now, even as adults, whenever she’s hurting, I want to swoop in and stand next to her in the fire; make her pain my pain, convinced that together we can bear it more easily. Maybe that’s also why it felt so disorienting to be alone in my own grief.
Because it no longer works like it used to. We no longer live in the same house. We no longer share the same enemies, even if we sometimes fight similar daemons. We can no longer operate as a team. I know Kristen grieved with me after my miscarriages. I think she also grieved for me. I think she felt indignation and unfairness on my behalf and wished she could have had kids for me in my place. But she couldn’t stand in the fire with me. She couldn’t make me a mother. All she could do hold my hand while I burned. It’s all any of us can do when someone we love is hurting.
This new phase of our relationship requires better communication. Since we don’t have an innate understanding of one another’s circumstances we have to listen more. We validate when we can’t relate. We talk about feelings rather than solutions. It’s good. Yet I’m sure we’ll shift again. If or when I become a mother, Kristen will have the surplus of knowledge. She will have the advice to give, and I will be the baby duck. I’m looking forward to it.