When I lived in Ireland 30 years ago my friend, Killian, startled me when he said he couldn’t join us for a pint because he had to go to his fuckin’ sister’s house.
“Killian, don’t you and your sister get along?”
Killian’s eyes darted to me and in a thick, Dublin accent he retorted, “I love me fookin’ saysder! What the hell’s fookin’ wrong wit’ya? Jaysus, of course I love me fookin’ saysder!”
“Then why do you call her your fucking sister?”
He shrugged his shoulders, “Eh, I don’t know. It’s just what we say. We use ‘fuck’ fer everyting. Like, if ye ask me where ta put dat tray I’ll just tell ye to fook it over dehr… But I want ye t’be clear dat I loove me fookin’ saysder very much.”
Our parents call her Tracy, and I usually do, too. But my sister is Myfookinsaysder because I love her fiercely, the way Killian loves his.
Mom brought Tracy home from the hospital when I was fifteen months old, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t informed of the rules around being a good big sister. If I had been, I probably nodded my head at all the words and then ignored them. Not because I was so young, but because I was me.
Shortly after her arrival, Mom was in our tiny apartment kitchen when she heard Tracy’s muffled cries. She rushed into the living room, ten feet away, and looked at me as I hovered over my newborn sister in her bouncy chair. I was busily shoving raisins into her mouth and up her nose, one after another.
“Karen!” Mom shrieked. She ran toward us, horrified, then picked out all raisins and emptied them into the trash.
“What were you doing? What were you thinking?”
I don’t remember the incident but, according to our Mom, I looked back at her in surprise and calmly replied, “I’m sharing my raisins with Tracy.”
And that set the stage for the next 20 years.
In elementary school Tracy owned the entire Sunshine Family collection of dolls, including a big Grateful-Dead-meets-Little-House-on-the-Prairie style home, the antithesis of Barbie’s Dreamhouse. It even came with its own tiny pottery wheel. I played with my Lone Ranger doll, whose legs could spread open to ride the plastic horses in my plastic stable, and who launched mounted raids on unsuspecting, pottery-wielding hippy families. She played with Easy-Bake Ovens and dolls that could poop, while I rode a pony who pooped all over our suburban neighborhood.
We were pretty rough on each other in the old days, mostly because I couldn’t actually figure out how to share. We’d scream and tattle and purposefully make life hard. She’d take my stuffed animals for her menagerie, figuring I never played with them anyway, and I’d pop the head off one of her dolls as revenge. I’d grab a donut and she’d throw a fit because it was the last pink one, and everyone should know it belonged to her because pink was her favorite color and my favorite color was blue, and everyone knows they don’t make blue donuts but that wasn’t her problem.
Our parents would tell us to work through our conflicts on our own, with only two rules: one, no name-calling and two, no physical contact, but we managed to fit a lot of hurtful childhood stuff into the acreage between those flimsy boundaries. Usually I’d get in bigger trouble for it since I was a more aggressive kid, and sometimes we’d both get in trouble, and over the course of our first two decades we struggled to learn how to come together.
We had a few good moments, as well, and I think these are what we ultimately built our relationship on as we grew up.
During my senior year I was grounded to my room, forbidden from both the TV and the phone for a week. When we were grounded, our only options were to read books, draw pictures, or buckle down on homework. We could only leave our rooms to eat or use the bathroom, go to school, or go to work if we had a job. And by we I mean me, because Tracy never got grounded.
This particular time I remember running into Tracy’s room, crying that the only option I had left was to run away from home.
“I don’t want to run away, but I’m being forced into it. Mom and Dad are being totally unreasonable and won’t listening to anything I have to say,” I wailed.
“Why are they grounding you?” she asked.
“Because I didn’t come home after school, and Lisa and I went to Brian’s house, and I didn’t call to tell them where I was,” I replied.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“Because they don’t care anyway,” I replied.
“Of course they care. That was stupid of you to not call.”
“And grounding me is going to teach me to call? If anything, it’s just teaching me to be gone more!”
“The point isn’t that you weren’t home, it’s that they didn’t know where you were, and they were worried about you. They do care. They’re grounding you because you were selfish.”
She made a lot of sense, but I could hardly admit she was right, much less accept my parents’ punishment. “Fine, I should have called. But I’m still leaving. I’m simply not going to sit in my room for an entire week.”
“What problem will running away from home solve? Don’t you think it might just create more problems for everyone. Won’t that make it worse?”
Of course it would, and over the next fifteen minutes she chiseled away at my emotions, a combination of logic and compassion, and managed to talk me off the ledge. She then went the extra step, appealing to our parents for some leniency; it was so out-of-character for her to come to my defense that they actually listened—and although they denied her appeal, they amended my sentence to a couple of days.
I remember something shifted that day, and I was so grateful to have her in my corner that it felt OK to spend a few days alone in my room.
Nearly twenty years later we’d forged a strong friendship, and she was no longer a mere sibling I’d known as a child. I had just been accepted into the University of Minnesota’s part-time MBA program, and the two of us were reminiscing about all the things that had transpired over the previous decade, particularly the last few Twilight Zone years leading up to my divorce. I’d been single for a few years at that point, and after an epic struggle I finally felt like I’d come into my own.
Tracy mused, “You were so taken up with your family’s lives that it started to become hard to talk with you about anything. You didn’t have much to say about you and what you were doing.”
“I suppose. I was at home with the kids and that was my whole world. It must’ve been weird for you to not have kids and then talk to me about all the things a three-year-old did. I was kinda boring.”
There was an uncomfortable pause, and I knew she was trying to figure out how to say something.
“Well,” she began, “it’s not that you were boring as much as you were just gone. All the things that made you you were gone. I felt like I kept trying to get at this ghost, like you were just a vapor I couldn’t catch, and it was really sad for me. It was like I lost my sister.”
I’d always felt misunderstood by those whose lives revolved around work or hobbies or other non-kid factors, and I hated that all the esoteric and mystifying work of motherhood seemed dismissed, like moms weren’t doing their part, or we were somehow taking the easy way out.
“I know it can seem dull to be a stay-at-home mom,” I replied, “But I couldn’t relate to you or Dad or anyone talking about business simply because I’d never been in that world, but I did try. I asked questions, and I tried to understand as much as I could. By the same token, don’t you think it was also up to you guys to try getting into my world a little? To try to relate to what I was dealing with?”
She sat there thinking for a minute and, with a confounded look in her eyes, told me something extraordinary.
“It had nothing to do with work or kids or those day-to-day activities. It wasn’t that people couldn’t or didn’t want to understand. That’s not what I’m getting at. It was more like your soul got sucked into a black hole that killed your spark. I think all the drama you were going through over such a long period of time, especially when it came to your ex’s crazy behavior, just took you away from all of us. It was a gradual slide but it was very real.”
I hadn’t been aware of the extent of her feelings. I remembered how agitated she’d get with me, frequently re-asking what I’d been doing for myself, and yet I always somehow thought I’d answered her questions. The more time passed, however, the more clarity I’d gained through hindsight.
“I became codependent with all the craziness in my life,” I replied, “When you live in an environment full of deception, it’s easy to lose track of yourself since you’re always trying to keep track of the impossible. It was like being sucked up by a tornado, and all you know is that you keep getting hit by shingles and tree limbs and flying cows, and nothing makes sense. I could hardly tell where I was or how I got there. It didn’t occur to me to get out of the tornado until the very end.”
She replied in a slow and measured tone, “I think that’s true, and I can’t begin to understand the depth of all of it, but I still wonder what would have happened between the two of us if you hadn’t found out about his last affair with another woman and gotten divorced. I mean, I wonder what would have happened to our relationship as sisters over the long run if something hadn’t changed.”
“Do you really think it would have affected us?” I asked, surprised.
Tracy thought carefully about her words. “Honestly yes. It was so frustrating for me. I didn’t want to know about him or your kids or your neighbors. I wanted to know about you. I felt like I didn’t have a relationship with you and I resented the fact that you wouldn’t speak up for yourself. I was mad at you whether it was fair or not, because I wanted you back.” Tracy paused again, looking me directly in the eye. “I’m going to tell you something and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way.”
I was getting nervous. Our conversation had started to feel like a build-up, the way an alligator pauses before winding into a death roll, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. “Umm, OK,” I said, “I’ll try to be open minded.”
She took a deep breath and said something crazy, something I could never have imagined anyone saying to me behind my back, much less to my face.
“If I ever meet her,” she began, “I hope you don’t get mad if I give her a hug.”
“Excuse me? The woman I found out about? You want to give her a hug?” I asked, mortified.
Tracy composed herself, her eyes filling with tears. It was clear that the force and intention behind her words had shaken her but she regrouped and continued, “Yes. A hug. She did a horrible thing, I mean they both did a horrible thing, but in the end, she gave me my greatest gift: She gave my sister back to me.”
She gave my sister back to me.
Everything Tracy said was true and as I let her words settle, I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude, maybe the same one Tracy felt, for the woman with whom my ex-husband had his last affair.
It’s been about ten years since that conversation, and I still feel the same way. Obviously, I don’t condone what the two of them did, and it remains the most traumatic event in my life, but what a strange and beautiful juxtaposition it is to be grateful for.
Sometimes Truth feels like a quiet revelation brought forth by someone who knows you better than you know yourself. And sometimes Truth can feel violent. It can be so blinding and so revealing, and sometimes so painful, that resistance is futile and there’s no choice but to let it sit at my kitchen table while it tells me to make some coffee because we’re going to spend the afternoon getting to know each other. And when I can muster the courage to face Truth head-on, when I feel like the trauma of a particular Truth might just crush me into dust, I’m overcome with understanding, and suddenly the dust that had been so threatening will settle down and reveal a new guest sitting in Truth’s chair called Peace.
Tracy possesses a clarity of thought that helps put the world into perspective. If I can hold on long enough to see the light, Myfookinsaysder brings Truth, followed with an abiding Peace, every single time.