Do you know anyone who’s burrowed so deeply into their storylines, their beliefs, that it’s as if they’re in a trench? One of their own making? Every year, holiday time and extended interactions with family members can provide unique opportunities to love or shun some with whom we share DNA. One wonders how siblings who were brought up by the same parents, in the same house can have vastly different outlooks on the world and their place within it. And yet they do, confoundingly so. Nature? Nurture? Both? I love that we humans are maddeningly complex. I hate that we are, just as much.
Life’s journey provides offramps and pathways for do-overs – routes we can take, should we choose to, to mend old wounds. Even when the mile marker says, “Opportunity Ahead” pointing to an off ramp, beckoning us toward “Better Days”, the allure of the well-worn path feels safer. More familiar.
A recent, extended conversation with a dear one who’s struggling with her sister provided a glimpse into the choices and decisions we make, sometimes irrevocably, if we lack the courage to intervene. My friend hoped that Christmas this year would be family reunion-like. She and her siblings are aging, feeling the weight of illnesses and diagnoses, some serious and life-threatening, many pesky and perturbing as joints and limbs begin to talk back with aches and ailments.
My dear one? She’s staring down the ultimate challenge. Despite sailing through life as a healthy person, she’s been dealt a blow she can’t dismiss with nutrition, exercise, meditation, and self-care. Her body has rebelled against her, allowing cancer to overrun her organs and migrate, shamelessly, destructively into her bones. “It came out of left field”, she said, when she called to share the news. Yes, she has treatment choices to make, but the prognosis is sobering. Time is short.
She looked forward to family time last week and hoped she might find an opening to have “the talk”, a long overdue heart-to-heart with her sister. For years they’ve been at odds and my friend hoped to uncover the origin story, the reasons behind her sister’s intense vitriol toward her. Whatever IT is, she thought, might we put it to bed now, once and for all?
Explaining her game plan to me, she acknowledged that she may have unknowingly hurt her sister. A slight or oversight, so large (and yet imperceptible to her) that it’s stood between them for thirty years. “I’ll apologize, but I need to hear from her to understand”, she said.
After an awkward dinner and the forced revelry of two rounds of ‘white elephant’ gift exchanges, my friend figured the time was right to ask her sister to take a walk with her – around their old neighborhood. No one in the family knew about her diagnosis yet; she’d been delaying, living in a shroud of secrecy, fearful about sharing her devastating news at a festive time. This is my friend in a nutshell – forever putting others first.
And yet…my friend’s nature includes frankness and fortitude as descriptive characteristics, too. In her head and heart, she felt compelled to mend the rift with her sister as job #1…the long overdue task. Secretly, she hoped her sister might morph into an ally to help her as she broke the news to their parents, who aren’t in the best of health themselves…older and fragile.
Remember the trench I mentioned? The well-worn paths we create through our choices and the tendency to cling to realities…those that feel protective, safe, and warm? Despite her savvy awareness of her sister’s tendencies, my friend, the perpetual optimist, said she felt hopeful when her sister said yes, a walk would be great. But as they wrapped themselves up in winter gear – hats, boots, scarves, and gloves – my friend caught a rush of intuition, an omen that “nice” wasn’t on the menu for their sisterly stroll. She was right.
Crunching down the snowy driveway, her sister bluntly said, I know what you’re doing and it won’t work. I know you’re looking for a smoking gun…you want me to tell you why I don’t like you, provide a moment, a memory so you can spin it, massage it, and make it better. There’s no moment. There’s no reason, other than you’ve always been the favorite and everything’s easy for you. I guess I hate that about you. You’re the one – the pretty one, the smart one, the accomplished one – and I’ve always felt less than, because you exist.
For my dear one, her sister’s rant, the torrent and tumble-load of arrogance, sounded rehearsed. Practiced. The words flew out of her mouth with ease, and yet her voice cracked as she spoke. As they approached the end of the long, sloping driveway, my friend paused, turning toward her sister/stranger as if she saw her for the very first time.
Wondering if words would come, she looked at a face that mirrored her own in so many ways. Same nose, dark eyes. Except for the differences in color, thanks to Clairol, their hair was the same, too. Curly and wayward, forever poking out underneath winter hats like corkscrew filaments of static and frizz.
She saw her sister tremble. First the bottom lip and then her chin, prompting my friend to embrace her, in a wave of love and insight. In that moment, she understood. While she may have been a target, a focal point for her sister’s frustrations for many years, the source was her sister’s self-loathing, her lack of confidence and compulsion to compare.
What happened next? An expansive exchange about their shared histories of hurt? No. They just walked. From the end of the driveway and around the block. Not speaking, but moving in cadence, shoulder-to-shoulder, guiding each other around snowdrifts and icy patches.
As my dear one told the story to me later, she shared this: “It was enough. That walk? It was the best Christmas gift.” She didn’t tell her sister about her medical news. Not that day, she said, but soon. Their plan is to spend New Year’s Eve together at the family cabin. Just the two of them, pulling each other out of their trenches, to higher ground and hopefully new, and more loving territory. Together. I think it’s an excellent start and my friend’s trust in me, allowing me to be near to listen and love her? That’s her gift to me.