Interlude Chapter: Confessions on my sister

By the third year of university, I had my studies solidified and my own little circle of friends. I could not get enough of learning about Sigmund Freud and Social Psychology and spending time in the company of my college friends who happened to either be in social sciences or international studies. They had no idea about my medical history, daily medications, recent gum surgery, two kidney transplants, my mother who left me, and quarterly doctor and blood work appointments. I was all about forgetting my past and catapulting myself into the future. No one had to know. No one would know.

My past also included Claudia. In our third year of university, we stopped sharing a dormitory and depending on one another for every little morsel of emotional support and social extravaganza. We lived in separate and single rooms with only an alcove of a bathroom between us. We were still like sisters that chatted, laughed, and joked, but it was different. Our past and childhoods were our indestructible bond, our present was about our own separate academic worlds with her and her music and me and psychology and sociology, and our future were massive question marks. All my life, Claudia was my anchor who did not have to question who I became because she knew who I was in the past, but her knowing all my secrets and history was a reminder of all I wanted to abandon. Being with her was a simultaneous and confusing feeling of a warm blanket that wrapped me in comfort, yet an old pair of shoes that I was ready to part with. I could feel a change and transition bubbling in me as my time with Claudia decreased. Sometimes, I would hear her through the thin and pasty, dormitory walls with one of her study buddy music friends pouring over sheet music and Mozart, and I thought: What had changed? Who had changed? What was going on? What was happening to me? Why did I still feel like my past was holding me back from living for now and what the unforeseen future held for me?

One night, I finally had enough of my past always there and somehow haunting me. I picked up the phone with the phone cord twisted between my fingers and waited for my Dad to pick up the phone. When he did, I said in a shaky, but oddly confident voice: “Dad, you said to me that if I did not want to live on campus after two years that I could start commuting and live back home…”


“Well, I want to move back home,” I announced.

He paused. “I thought you were happy there and all on that independence kick with your new friends and schoolwork.”

The phone crackled in my ear and I heard a burst of laughter or chatter from Claudia and her friend through the walls. I eyed the walls and knew it was time for me to take these unsettling transitory feelings and make them a reality. I was always one to take action and control of my life. I was never the one who sat on the sidelines just watching my life pass me by. Without going into too much detail and explaining myself completely clearly, I said: “How can I explain that I am on my own, but I am not? I’ve experienced living on campus, but now I want to experience what commuting is like. I want to see what both worlds are like. I want to go back home. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“Okay, that is fine. No looking back once you move back home and start commuting,” Dad reminded me.

We slowly began to make arrangements. My Dad ended our conversation casually: “Oh, by the way, your sister is moving back home, too. Good timing, huh?”

My Dad hung up the phone, as my stomach plummeted to the ground. Crap, I thought. What had I done?

My sister. Gosh, where did I start with my sister? Talk about the past somehow finding a way to haunt me and stay there until I faced up to it. The truth was that my sister and I were strangers. Somehow, my sister always seemed like her own island. I envied her top-notch physical health that propelled her to fierce independence and freedom—qualities I never had growing up. I wanted just a taste of that independence and freedom. I wanted to be like her—healthy and capable to do anything and everything. As soon as my sister graduated from high school, I barely saw her because she was living up life in New York City where she studied Journalism, History, and Asian Studies at New York University. Once she finished college and when I was still in high school, I never saw her because she was either in a U.S. state or another country working. I truly had no idea who she was once she returned home to obtain a Masters in Journalism at Columbia University—and I doubted that she knew who I was.

I always blamed the 6 ½ year age difference between us and especially my health as the large reasons and wedges to the nearly non-existent relationship that my sister and I had. As children, we kept distance from one another because we nearly always ended up arguing with me as the bratty younger sister and her as the tormented older sister. The distant and uncomfortable relationship that I knew of my whole life with my sister made our distinct differences all the more clear to the both of us and to the people who knew us. She was slim and athletic from her passion for endless swimming and fitness. She wore the latest fashions and could not leave the house without color to her lips and a powdery shade to her eyelids. She was polished, poised, and an all-out chic and sophisticated woman. There was me who was the short and cute one who cracked silly jokes and thrived on my goofiness and upbeat attitude and zest for life. On the surface, my sister maybe seemed a bit high-strung and reserved when her shoulders tensed up when people began to strike a conversation with her. I was the complete opposite in socializing and chatting with anyone who gave me the time of day. I hated make-up and dressing up. On more than one occasion, my sister dolled me up or insisted on me stepping out of my box and trying new clothes and a new me, but I was too stubborn and stuck in my comfort zone. It was questionable how we managed to come from the same parents when we appeared and behaved so differently, but I soon learned with my sister’s return home that we were more alike than met the eye.

On the day that my sister returned back home, I was more nervous than overjoyed. I did not even remember the last time I had saw my sister. I only glimpsed recent photos, but photos were paper images that never compared to the person up close and personal. Unlike my Dad and Stepmom who enveloped her in hugs and eagerly awaited to hear her latest work experience in California, I stayed upstairs in the bathroom. I had no idea why I was so scared and nervous. My mouth was dry and my hands were shaky as I tried to find a place to post the dry erase calendar on the bathroom wall.

My Dad shouted from downstairs: “Come down here!! Your sister is here!!”

I yelled back: “I’m coming!!”

But, then I heard my sister’s somewhat familiar heavy and jumpy footsteps pounding upstairs. As always, my sister was a huge ball of childish energy when she was around me. She nearly barreled me down in the bathroom with a big grin and hug. I stared at her with her cropped and stylish hair, clear skin, and pouty, painted lips.

After surveying me, she said proudly: “You look good! You lost weight! That kidney transplant must be treating you well!”

I was sure that my mouth was hanging open. I never remembered my sister so chummy, happy, and friendly. Who was she? Then, she eyed the dry erase calendar and her grin disappeared as she asked suspiciously: “What are you doing?”

I hesitated, then cleared my throat. I stammered: “Well, Dad suggested that we, you know….uhh….make a schedule of who cleans the bathroom and when and about sharing the Internet and…”

I trailed off. My sister looked at me completely shocked and sputtered half-jokingly and half-seriously: “What are we? 2-years-old? We’ll figure it out. Who cares?”

I exhaled and gave a shaky smile. We hugged again. Yeah, who cares.

In only a matter of days, our childhood that was spent arguing over petty and stupid matters came back to us full throttle. The more we attempted and worked to warm our ways into each other’s hearts with random chats about our lives as well as the start of schedules of who cleaned the bathroom when, who had dial-up Internet at what time, who got up when to have access to the bathroom first, and who washed dishes or set up the dining room table with flatware and silverware, the more we ended up arguing. One would think that with us older and supposedly mature adults that the arguments were distant and laughable memories.

Think again.

No matter the number of schedule outlines we made, we ended up quarrelling on a weekly basis over the bathroom, Internet access, and nit-picked if the bathroom was not clean enough. We had shouting matches and slammed doors in each other’s faces on numerous occasions. I was suffocated, trapped, and the privacy I was accustomed to back at university fell to pieces when she banged on my door to chat about her day or that she needed the Internet. I gritted my teeth when my sister went into her nightly ritual of trying on clothes from five years prior when she was able to fit into the clothing from Hong Kong that had sizes much smaller than the U.S. I bit my tongue when she whined about being so fat, when we both knew that I was the one who battled with the bulge for many years.

When I was little girl and my sister and I screamed at one another or she wrestled me to the ground, my Dad would storm upstairs, separate the both of us, and try to play peacemaker, but now he announced with a tightness in his voice: “I’m too old for this. Grow up. Figure it out yourselves.”

My Dad stomped back downstairs and my sister and I eyed one another warily and then turned in opposite directions like spoiled little children.

Yet, in spite of all the petty arguments, gritting teeth, and privacy invasions, there were hidden gem moments that often shocked and startled me about the benefits of having someone other than my parents that was related to me. Almost every night, my sister knocked on my door with a bowl of plump red grapes or soured green grapes and sat on the steps leading to my bedroom with her painted toenails sticking out and a wide smile on her beautiful face. She said: “How was your day? How’s school? Have a grape.”

When she first did this, I rolled my eyes and told her to go away because I wanted to be alone, but she persisted and tempted me with snacks and curious conversation. We soon fell into a nightly ritual of rehashing our days. We shared the common bond of feeling left out, alone, and completely friendless because we had to commute and consider traffic, train schedules, and when to do assignments rather than lounge around on campus to spend time with friends or attend campus events. I shared with my sister that I often felt as though I made the biggest mistake when I chose to commute and return home because I had somewhat isolated myself. When I was on campus, I only saw glimpses of my college buddies and chatted politely about how schoolwork were slowly torturing us. As for Claudia, her and I barely saw one another anymore. This left me sad and thinking about my past, and how so much can change and how people can change as the years go by in truly a blink of an eye. I soon began to look forward to my chats with my sister that gave me comfort and solace on those routine days that were dictated by my set schedule of when to arrive to class and leave class with little contact with my university friends. It was ironic that my initial decision to commute came from trying to leave behind the past in order to move forward, but I somehow always came back to face and think about the past when I would chat with my sister. I could not tell the difference between leaving the past or maybe just running away from it.

In our chats, I found myself discovering sisterhood and a sister that I blocked out because distinct and sharp memories of my health experiences were clearer images than her. I missed out on my sister and a sisterhood for so long—too long, thanks to my health. As the months of commuting went by, my sister and I fought less and less and talked more and more about our daily routines, our lives, and our thoughts, but the topics that we refused to touch upon without saying aloud were about my health, our Mother, our family, and our complicated relationship when we were children. I focused on the feeling that I finally had a sister in my life—not just biologically, but emotionally. Commuting made me see that there was so much lost and gained with the decisions that we made. My losses were my friends and the fun and fabulous social life of college, but my gains were my rekindling a non-existent relationship with my sister, becoming closer than ever with my parents, and a newfound freedom and independence that I had actually never tasted before with following and making my own schedule and somehow breaking away from my childhood. More than that, I learned about my sister and about sharing, compromises, and that, in the end, the small stuff like Internet and who gets the bathroom first did not matter in the big picture.

However, just when our sisterhood bond was formed, my sister told us that she was relocating about six hours north to upstate NY for a new journalism job. I was happy for her, but I could not admit the truth that I was going to miss her. With her pearly white smile and bright eyes, she asked me playfully: “Are you going to miss me?”

I gave her a half-hearted smile and nodded enthusiastically. I said softly: “Sure will.”

Before I knew it and what was happening, my sister was gone again.

I never expected that her absence would make me feel more alone and incubated than ever. Without her, the upstairs that I once looked forward to owning and taking control of had a silent and eerie feeling to it. Though we spoke on the phone, I realized that all the cell phone calls, text messages, emails, letter-writing, and instant messaging was nothing compared to her and to someone physically there. At night, I sometimes looked up expecting her to barge into my room and announce her daily woes. I thought I heard her hammering away at her computer keyboard, struggling to finish her latest assignment. I saw images of her with mint-flavored toothpaste foaming at her mouth and a toothbrush in her hand as she danced around the upstairs, which prevented me from focusing on some silly school paper. I rummaged through the closet we shared to touch her clothing and saw her in my mind holding up an outfit as she proclaimed: “How does it look?! You try it on! This is what sisters do!” But she was not there. I selfishly missed her being there to welcome me when I came home after a friendless and work-filled school day.

It dawned on me as to how true it was that people did not appreciate what they had until it was gone and, for my sister and me, it was true that distance made our hearts grow fonder. On our phone conversations, my sister confessed how she was struggling with being alone in the countryside that was filled with more cows than people she could connect with. She told me that she realized that there was nothing more important than family and that the happiness with family outweighed the heartaches that family brought us. She concluded that all her many travels that she experienced since finishing her undergraduate paled in comparison to home and, in the end, everyone needed someone. Our conversations revolved around the future, learning, growing pains, and growing up, but never, ever the past. Until, one particular night when I was sprawled on my bed in my Disney pajamas and my sister called me all upset about something that happened with our mother.

“She is so messed up. I can’t take it. She knows I’m not there, but she still does her typical crap of calling to invite me over. When I gave in that I would find a way to see her when I came down to visit all of you, she said that it would not work for her. How can she say that she is our mother when all she does is try to get close to us and then leave us all over again? What is the point?”

I swallowed hard and felt myself burning up and getting all hot inside at my mother who had hurt my sister and, in turn, hurt me yet again. I did not trust myself to speak about my mother because then that meant really talking about the past and that one of my fears would come true: My Sister blaming my stupid health and me for my Mother leaving us. I did not say anything

So, my sister continued: “Mary, everyone here in this countryside has a typical family of mother, father, and children. There is this guy that sits across from me who calls his wife to check on the kids. There are women here that only talk about their children as if they are their pride and joy. Mom probably talked about us as though we were a pain in her ass. She was probably never proud of us. We never had that growing up. We never had a mother growing up.”

I piped up pathetically: “Well, at least we have Dad.”

My sister sighed and admitted: “Yes. We are really lucky that we have Dad, but why do other kids have a great mother and we don’t? There is nothing good that came from that woman who says she is our mother. The only good thing that came from her is you.”

I was shocked. Did I hear her right? I could not believe my sister said that. I shook the phone to make sure that I heard her right. I heard the stories from my Dad that my sister always craved a sibling, but to hear her say that I was the best thing that came from our mother stunned me. I was speechless. I bolted upright and the phone I held with my sweaty and sticky fingers dropped to the ground. It was the sweetest statement that anyone had ever said about me, but instead of expressing gratitude, I grabbed the phone haphazardly and blurted out: “I can’t believe you said that!! How can you say that when all I did was screw everything up with my health?!” It was probably the stupidest thing I said at that priceless moment in time

My sister said quietly: “It means a lot that you said that, but your health was your health. You did not ask to be born sick. It just happened. Things in life just happen.” She paused and then said slowly: “The truth is that it was really hard growing up with you because you had all of Dad and Mom’s attention with your health. Yeah, I had to grow up fast. Yeah, I did not get the attention and you did. But, you can’t blame yourself and your health for Mom leaving. She was screwed up even before you were born. She was probably even screwed up before she met Dad.” She chuckled and then I could not help but giggle to that comment.

Listening to my sister that night, it was obvious how fast she grew up in a short amount of time. She had longed for attention and guidance from our parents, but felt guilty or wrong to go to them to when I was the one physically sick. I, in turn, felt guilty and to blame for what she craved to receive, yet did not receive. Such a chronic illness had a domino effect on every one and perhaps was harder on the people we love rather than the person that has to deal with the chronic illness. It had to take a strong and united family to face up to a chronic illness, and the plain fact was that I did not have that. My Dad and sister did what they could and they shined in all the ways that they did manage, but my mother leaving was the most hurtful blow to my Dad, sister, and me that left us weak to my health problems.

However, that night on the phone, my sister and I came to and had an understanding that we could not let the past and our mother and her unpredictable ways divide us as it had for so many years and that it was a process and not some final and immediate cure for all. In life, we do not always have choices in what is given to us, but we do have the choice with how we handle what is given to us. The greatest gifts that my sister and my time with her gave to me was seeing that there was nothing more important than family and that I had spent these last years at university trying so hard to run away from the past when all I had to do was to learn from the past so I could move forward and create my future and who I really am rather than what my illness was.

My sister came to terms that she was more of a fierce urbanite rather than a rural country gal, so she left upstate New York full of cows and settled in a cute and cozy apartment in New York City. We still talk on the phone and meet about once a month or more to try out a new eatery in NYC, exchange work stories and guy confusion, go to a new social event, or watch a movie and gorge on popcorn and sweet and sour candies.

Sometimes, I will sleep over at her apartment and we giggle and whisper late into the night with the moon shining above and the sprinkle of stars dotted in the velvet-colored sky. I feel blessed, fortunate, and in love with having a sister—but not just any sister, but my sister who is the only and best thing that came from my history of health problems and our mother.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Wow what a beautiful story about your relationship with your sister.