February 8, 2012

Life Lessons Essay

Since the essay I submitted to Real Simple's Life Lessons essay contest did not win (I would by been notified by a month ago, so it's safe to assume it's not going to be published), I'm posting it here  now. The  theme we were to write about was "When did you first understand the meaning of love?" I didn't want to do anything cliche and write about falling in love or marriage, since I was sure there would be lots of stories like that. So instead I chose to write about my relationship with my sister during a very difficult period in her life and what I learning about loving someone through crisis. Without further ado:

One of my earliest memories (I was not quite three) is of my sister joining our family.

She was “born on vacation”-my mom went into labor while we were at a cabin on Lake Michigan, where we went every summer when I was young. My parents had to make the two and a half hour drive back to the hospital and doctor in Illinois and I stayed in Michigan with my Grandma. I don’t remember much about the separation from my mom and dad. Standing in front of what seemed like a giant wall of toys to pick out something for my sister is my only cognizant memory of the time. Most clear is the moment when the three of them came back to the cabin. I ran up the endless flight of wooden stairs from the beach to see this new little creature, my sister, for the first time.

As I ran, I let my hands graze the wooden handrail and got dozens of splinters in my palms due to my error of haste. The splinters meant I wasn’t allowed to touch my baby sister when I finally arrived at her side. My next memory is getting the splinters taken out (naturally, THAT experience made it into the permanent memory bank!). And through it all I remember my feelings of excitement at being a big sister.

People joke about opposites in families or other relationships, but my sister and I fit the bill to a T. We look alike enough; you can tell right away that we are related. And we sound exactly alike! Our children have, on more than one occasion, been soothed by what they thought was their mom’s voice, only to realize that it was their aunt. But in most other ways, we couldn’t be more different.

I am cautious, studious, stoic, reserved, and shy. I learn by watching, avoid unnecessary risks, am the peacemaker and tend to make “right” decisions. I have a daring side, like to have fun, and have a silly sense of humor, but I would be described as dependable more often than fun. I am the one who got married at twenty-one and was the first in my family to graduate from college, but I’ve also been skydiving and gotten my navel pierced!

She is extroverted, unpredictable, fun loving, risk-taking, emotional, and sensitive. She has a very responsible and take-care-of-business side that impresses me greatly but most people wouldn’t describe her as responsible and logical. Blonde jokes are regularly aimed at her, but she isn’t even in her thirties and already has a savings account, numerous other investments, and follows a budget as a single, working mother who is also going back to school!

I learned a lot from my sister growing up. Most of it was an anecdotal lesson in what NOT to do. We spent a lot of years at odds with each other. Fighting (screaming, physical fights) did not happen in our immediate family. But we had our share of disagreements, silent treatments, passive aggressive battles, etc. All I had to do was mention her trouble in school to make her feel bad, and she could turn around and make fun of my acne and big glasses to bring out all of my insecurity.

By the late 90s, we were able to become friends again. We bonded over tough financial times when my father lost his job and family crises like chronic illness and the loss of loved ones. It was nice.

In 2000, my sister began her first serious dating relationship. She was at school in Wisconsin and I was in Illinois preparing for my 2001 wedding. We didn’t keep in touch much. I met her boyfriend the day before my wedding. He seemed OK. Young and immature, but OK. And she seemed happy. I had no idea what was really going on, or what lay ahead for her, and our family.

The next couple of years were a steady, nauseating, dizzying downward spiral for my sister. Most of the worst things you can imagine she did, had done to her, or somehow fell into. From the “minor” (having her debit card stolen, losing jobs) to the major (abuse, addiction, loss of reputation, bankruptcy). Our family went through a lot by proxy. She was a whirlwind of drama, fear, sadness, depression, mania, addiction, lies, pain and so many other things.

I tried to help in whatever way I could. Not knowing what she was going through personally, I just had to guess at what might help her. I hope that I got it right at least sometimes! I know I failed a lot of the time. I carried all the ups and downs with me, and still do carry some of them.

After years of this struggle, we were all worn down. After years of trying to be there and love her, I often felt used and abused by her and her circumstances. It felt hopeless, to be honest. So many tears were cried for her. The fact that many of the circumstances she faced were on my list of worst nightmares didn’t help. It’s always uncomfortable to face your fears, even when you are facing them through someone else’s life. On top of that, I started to feel she was taking advantage of my concern. My advice was ignored. I was one moment the sounding board and refuge for her mangled emotions, and the next moment a burden and loser who didn’t deserve to hear the truth, or even know what was going on in her life. At least that was how I felt.

It was confusing and painful. I wanted to give it all up. I sort of wanted to give her up as a lost cause. When you have someone who uses up so many of your resources on a daily basis, you start to wonder whether it is even safe to have them in your life. How can one person have and take so much when there are so many other people in the world (or even just your immediate family) who have needs as well? How long should you care for and help someone who never gives back, and often doesn’t seem to realize the depth of what you are doing and feeling on her behalf?

As a person of faith, the duty and opportunity I feel I have to express love in difficult situations is very much a part of who I am and my thought process. In ruminating over the way love is described and shown by biblical figures (specifically God and Jesus), eventually, thankfully, I was given the answer to this family conundrum that had sucked up hours of my waking and sleeping: it didn’t matter if she EVER understood what I was doing for her, ever reciprocated, ever thanked me, ever showed me any love in return. My love for her shouldn’t be conditional and was completely my responsibility.
The forgiveness and grace I’ve been shown by God has no condition attached to it. Forgiveness for liars, tax collectors, murderers-none of it really makes sense, yet I believe it has been freely given. God showed me that I had a chance to extend some of that difficult, makes-no-sense forgiveness and love that is set forth in so many of the bible’s stories in a real life setting.

It was a revelation, to say the least.

But it was liberating. I could finally love my sister without all of the caveats and reservations that had troubled me for years. I could move beyond what came naturally and do what needed to be done. I could make the effort without worrying about my reward, or whatever unexpected or unexplainable backlash might result from my actions or words.

My love for her, in many ways, had nothing to do with her. At least in the sense that her actions didn’t mitigate or negate the love I should show her as a family member, friend and person.

In embracing an unconditional love, things did not improve immediately. We still had years of struggle ahead. But my internal fight about what to do, what to say, how to help, etc. became a dull ache for my sister’s release from her pain and a true empathy.

Years later, we now have a better relationship that is more reciprocal. The splinters we’ve received and caused are healed, or at least healing. Instead of a constant stream of drama and fear, there is much more peace. Nine years ago I couldn’t have imagined sitting serenely on the shores of Lake Michigan and playing in the water and sand with my sister and our kids, in the same manner that we did as children. But this summer, we did. 


  1. Love it, Sarah! I am learning so much with my sister having cancer. I keep saying it is an honor to sit with her when her husband works, to make sure she's OK, to get her things. I have three older sisters. I have lost one. Now another has terminal cancer. It is amazing how God uses our trials and stretches us to do his will, and to trust in him. Keep growing in your sibling relationships and treasuring each day you have with them!

  2. I love this, it in not to many words or details so describes what you went through. I think submitting it to a Christian magazine might open a door to getting it published more than a secular magazine maybe? Relevant comes to mind, the one in which Eric(Todd) Morrison has been published. Glad I got to see this. Love Mom