An open love letter to my sister

You are the eldest, I am the youngest, with a gulf of seven years between us. When we were children you were saddled with the burden of babysitting, given charge of your younger siblings, and we resented you for it. I remember running from you, streets and streets away in search of our mother whom I wanted. I know now that you wanted her too.

You grew up, moved out of the family home into your own city apartment, while I remained the last chick in the nest, prickly with teenage rebellion. You invited me to visit, our own weekend together, young and independent and free of parental interference. As we walked the pavements, exploring the shops and sights of your neighbourhood, we approached an intersection. Traffic heaved past and you reacted with thoughtless authority, your hand on my arm, holding me back. The spell was broken. I raged at the presumption, the patronisation, the infantilisation: I wasn’t a toddler who would dart out into the road! I know now that the gesture wasn’t intentional and that this happens to everyone; our learned habits run deeply deep and catch us unawares our whole life long.

I grew up too, left home. At our brother’s wedding, you and I shared a hotel room. In the dark that night, I could hear you weeping and I didn’t know what to do. It was so unexpectedly raw, so huge and heavy and frightening, and I felt so ill-equipped to take on the role of confidante or comforter. I inquired meekly if at all, fumbled awkwardly to put it away, to put those unruly emotions back onto their shelf. I know now that you needed to be held.

I knew it then too – I just didn’t trust myself to know how. But as the years progressed, I tried to learn. I opened myself up to the potential of our friendship, and tried to listen, to offer encouragement, to be a source of support. You confided in me, came out as a lesbian, gathered yourself up to tell our parents, and I stood by you as best I could. Our mother was accepting, our father rejecting, and you dealt with the aftermath. I know now how much courage you summoned and what strength you’ve got for living truthfully.

I moved away and our friendship flourished through correspondence. You cheered when my daughter was born and became a devoted auntie. You gave her beautiful gifts: quilts you’d sewn and handmade books with stories you’d written. You visited us and you loved her to bits. I know now just how lucky she is.

Then came a difficult time when I pushed you away. I felt smothered, weighed down by duty, unhappy and exhausted with the unravelling of family knots. I retreated from everyone, determined to be independent and to curtail any emotional debt with those who didn’t seem to know me as the me that I knew myself. You recognised that something was wrong, and reached out to me, only to be slapped away, bitten, scratched, wounded. I know now how much I hurt you.

We steered clear of one another, our contact stilted and wary. The distance grew and a chasm opened up around me, deeper and deeper until one day I tipped over its edge and went tumbling and spinning. I called Mom in a panic of fear and she said do you want me to come to you? and I said yes I do, and she said do you want me to bring anyone with me? and I said yes I want you to bring my sister. Even in the confusion of spinning, I knew that the responsibility lay with me to try to mend the damage I had done. I know now that I was also reaching out for help.

Mom told me later that when she called you to ask, will you come? you didn’t hesitate. Yes of course, you said. You took an emergency leave from work and flew over with her to my side and that of your niece. I know now how much patience and forgiveness you exercised, how much love was in that lack of hesitation.

And so we’ve been mending, bit by bit, and rebuilding our faltered friendship. And I want you to know now that I love you. Not just because you are affectionate, loyal, intelligent, interesting, courageous, creative, witty, thoughtful, patient, generous, tasteful, kind, a wonderful sister, a loving daughter, a devoted aunt…. you are all of these. But I want you to know now that I love you because you are lovable. It is that simple.