I say that I’m the oldest of five. But that’s a lie. I’m actually the second oldest of six. Four months before my life began, my 16-month-old sister’s ended. She’d be 38 this month.
Born with a congenital heart defect, her early death was fated–her life clock rapidly marching towards death with her first breath of life. And although her death was certain–an eventuality that could be prepared for–it was no less tragic. It’s taken me 36 years to fully realize just how much impact my sister’s life–a girl I never knew–had on my own.
I don’t know when I began referring to myself as the oldest of five. I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember. At some point, you learn that people you’ve just met (or even those you’ve known and befriended) don’t want to hear about your dead sister. So, you remove any possibility that your sixth sister will ever come up in idle conversation. Eventually, denying her existence just became a convenient habit.
But that is part of the legacy of my sister’s short life. It’d be easy for me to write this piece about the beauty my sister’s life left in this world–nothing but positive affirmations about the little angel who was innocently, mercifully embraced by heaven. But the truth is, her death left as much darkness–perhaps more so–as it did light.
My parents died the day my sister did. Whoever they were, whatever parents they would’ve been, ended that day. In their place, I got the living dead. Two people just trying to get through each day in a time when no one would acknowledge or talk about what happened. In fact, they were encouraged to procreate replacement children as quickly as possible to mask their pain and “move on.” By the time I was 2, I already had two younger siblings.
There we were: three kids in diapers; two parents who were so detached that, to this day, I still have tenuous emotional ties to them; and the constant cloud of unspoken death hanging around us. You can see how it became so easy for me to erase my sister from existence.
And, yet, despite the shadow left over my life, my sister cast light too. And it is the light that has endured as the darkness has subsided.
Because my parents were broken–just trying to survive with three small children–I was forced to become fiercely independent: a trait that has followed me into adulthood and fueled my professional success. And despite not really ever learning how to fully relate to my parents or siblings, that experiential void has driven me to being an emotionally present and actively engaged spouse and parent (albeit far from perfectly).
Best I can recall, my dad has only told me that he loved me once in my life. I was about 20 and it was in response to me telling him that I loved him for the only time in my life. Sad as this may be, it constantly reminds me to tell my own boys “I love you” on a regular, repeated basis. (They also get lots of hugs and kisses from dad too.) But perhaps more importantly, when I’m in the room with them, I make a concerted effort to be present with them–which is no small challenge after a day’s work and the constant allure of technology. I can’t say whether this would’ve been the case if I hadn’t experienced such emotional disconnection in my own upbringing.
But I have come to realize this: we are exceptionally resilient as human beings. And as parents, we will not ultimately have control over the people our children become. Life, unplanned events, and even tragedy, will have as much a say in that as we will. We just need to be there to provide the foundation; the love and support when those events happen; and we need to accept that we’ll make mistakes, that we won’t handle everything perfectly, and that our children will endure. After all, I came out okay in the aftermath of death.
So, here’s to you, my big sister. You’ve helped shaped me more than I ever realized, and I thank you. Even though I never knew you, I’ve known you everyday of my life.