Monday, April 2, 2018

A Tale of Two Sisters

“I’m glad you’re taking it easier on the goals,” my sister commented on our lengthy phone call last night. "I think you push yourself too hard." Now that is a little amusing when you consider that one of the purposes of my call was to get us moving on a book we’ve talked of writing jointly. I had just finished a workshop on storyboarding a book and wanted to share what I had learned. 

You may recall, I had written of abandoning my reading and blog goals and descending into laziness and sloth. Now perhaps the laziness and sloth is a bit tongue in cheek, but it speaks to an inner fear of exactly that. Part of what makes life satisfying for me is in the doing and there is an underlying fear of losing the discipline that keeps me in motion. My sister proposed that I pushed myself for my late father who valued drive and achievement. I think it is more that I am similar to my late father. I got the “drive” gene.

Andee (7), me (10) with our grandfather
How do we take a positive quality and keep it from taking over our life? How do we manage our innate qualities so they don't run amok? It takes a while to learn who we are and what is unique to us. It helps to have a sister to do so, someone of the same gender who grew up with the same parents, but somehow turned into a different person. I shared a room with my sister as a child, yet somehow failed to really know her. Oh, I knew her idiosyncrasies. She was scared of thunderstorms as a child. She couldn’t fall asleep without the radio. I couldn’t fall asleep with it. I needed silence, she needed white noise. She used to pile her clothes on a chair and I thought longingly of the day when I would live on my own with an empty chair. Now I pile my clothes on a chair.

Those were the years when we were busy learning who we were. We had the myopia of childhood, a time when we were the center of our own universe. Later when I married, my sister was single. After she married and began to raise a family, I divorced. When I remarried, she divorced. Always out of sync with our lives and living different lives in terms of family. We communicated at the crisis points, always able to talk when lives were in upheaval, but living in our separate worlds and separated by geography.

A Shared November Birthday in the 1980s
We came together when our mother needed support. Our father had died, and our mother was living on her own in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. As is often the case, the daughters are the parental support system. We needed to learn to work together. Much to my surprise, my little sister proved to be a competent person. Who knew? No longer the kid who was afraid of thunderstorms, now capable and thoughtful about how best to support our mother. We bounced ideas off of each other and put together a plan with each of us playing a role, but also drawing on outside support. 

Our differences proved to be complementary. We were both good problem solvers, but she was better with the warm fuzzy stuff. I was better with organizing the facts.  I dealt with finances, she dealt with health matters. Our mother had always associated me with doing things. We had traveled together overseas, and I took her on adventures. My sister had the grandchildren and spent more relaxed family time with my parents. We easily fell into those roles again. As I lived further away, I came in for longer visits. My mother and I explored the city together and even took a trip to Israel. My sister shared more relaxed time with her on shorter weekly visits.  

We both trusted each other to deal with our respective spheres with my mother’s best interests always paramount. When we had different opinions, we worked it through. Along the way we developed a new relationship between us. So now we are talking about jointly writing a book on this shared experience, supporting parents as they go through a series of losses, from memory to life. We join them on that journey, losing them gradually until they leave this world and we then integrate who they were into our daily life. That latter stage especially intrigues me, how we make sense of these important relationships. Along the way our relationship with siblings takes on a new form. If we are fortunate, dealing with those losses together brings us closer. It is an often challenging, but rich experience, if we give ourselves over to it.

I have been going through my email correspondence with my sister, reassembling the history and reliving the ups and downs of those years where our focus was on our mother. The differences between us also emerge. I sent long lists after each visit of what I did from dealing with household problems to taking my mother on outings. The longer the list, the more successful the visit. Perhaps it was my way to exert control over an essentially uncontrollable situation. My sister responds that she is exhausted just reading my lists. Then there is the day to day. I spoke to my mother in the morning, my sister spoke to her in the evening. In between we traded information on conversations with our mother, insights into her and needs we identified. The teamwork is evident. When our mother passed away, I felt all the loss that went with it, but also a desire not to lose this new-found relationship with my sister. Perhaps the book is a way to continue it.

 I'm pretty sure it won't be easy.We are different people but working through and respecting those differences may make this a rich experience also. We have two voices and we will try to let each tell their story, weaving them together at times to let our shared story emerge. As to that question of how we manage our innate qualities, perhaps we do so by making room for someone who brings different qualities, tempering and augmenting our energy in new and different ways.

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