The Hamster Wheel

In biblical times, rivalry between siblings resulted in, at the extreme, murder or being sold as slave to foreigners, or, at best, being shunned and cheated out of your birthright. I suppose it’s good to know the majority of us with problematic relationships with a sibling have evolved to the level where we simply inflict psychological and psychic torment on each other. It’s a matter of the knife in the back being more metaphorical than actual, but it’s every bit as sharp.

My problem sibling is an old sister with whom I’ve never enjoyed a close or stable relationship. We fought as kids, we fought as teenagers, we fought as young adults, and, while we don’t physically hit each other any longer (maybe just because we live in different cities), we still manage to locate those sore spots in each other like radar and poke each other even now in our 60’s.

Rivalry is the end result of parental favoritism or, as in our case, parental withdrawal, where the need for love, attention and approval is made stronger because it is always elusive. As the second born, I came into a home as the interloper who would steal the love, attention and approval that was in short supply already, and, what there was of it already belonged to my sister. Of course, she would hate me. She would go on to perpetrate her hate by terrorizing and humiliating me to the extent that I ran away from home a number of times as a kid and finally, for good, at 17. But the trauma is still there. Although we’ve both gone on to make lives for ourselves, I think her guilt and shame and my anger and mistrust continue to dog us.

Maybe you have a similar situation. Maybe you had a mother who, on her deathbed, made you swear you would get along with your sister. And maybe, like me, you haven’t found that sweet spot between complete estrangement and a maintainable cordiality that you can live with. It’s something with which I struggle.

I do know this: I no longer have the energy or the time left in my life to running on the hamster wheel that is this relationship. The continuing make up, break up, make up, break up, ad nauseum is more drama than I want in my life, and carrying anger and mistrust is exhausting and toxic. I want to lift it off my shoulders, lay it down, and leave it behind. The trouble is, she is my sister. We are stuck in a pattern of behavior forged in history. It takes two to change the behavior, doesn’t it?

She has already told me she is not open to discussing the past, that she wants to start “right here, right now.” Convenient, but by not acknowledging our history, it remains the elephant in the room and the relationship isn’t really healed. I understand her, and I understand her desire to dismiss our past. I’ve tried to see our relationship through her eyes.

I think about the survivors and family members of the horrible Charleston church shooting, many of whom were able to forgive the killer in order to move forward with their own healing. What do they know that I don’t? Forgiveness is the agent of healing. I am working on forgiving the hurt of the past even though the perpetrator cannot offer or show any remorse or accountability. I might get there in time. But I don’t know, even if I find forgiveness, what a relationship with her might look like or even if a relationship is possible. Perhaps the best I can hope for is that it won’t matter so much.

What do you think?

And In The End The Love You Take

If there is one truth that all parents must embrace sooner or later, it is that no matter how much they love their children they must learn to let them go. Eventually, children must learn the same thing. When a parent dies, children do not say goodbye as much as they release them.

On February 18th, we released our mother in the early morning, as the deep indigo sky released itself to rising dawn, and soft pink and yellow light streamed through half open blinds into her hospice room, across the blanket that covered her, and quietly bathed her still face with a diffused glow.

We released her from our continuing need for her love and confirmation. We released her from our ambivalence — of her successes and failures as a parent — and of knowing that the perfect parent could not exist, for no child could stand them nor get free from them. All parents hurt their children. We vow to not make the same mistakes with our children. But we do, or we make different ones. And hope they have the capacity to forgive us. The miracle is that, somewhere in the process of releasing our mother, forgiveness became reflexive; there was only love.

Her death was not easy. She suffered hallucinations, physical and psychic pain. It was nightmarish. Yet, there were quiet moments in which she knew we were loved ones, even if she may or may not have known we were her daughters. I think there was comfort in that.

Here’s the thing: the mother of whom you can say loved you unconditionally; gave you a sense of purpose and possibility in life; and showed you what it means to live faithfully, to age courageously, and to die at peace with herself, is all the mother any child could hope for.

We had that mother.

20140302-181821.jpg