Sisters in the struggle

It was my younger sister Melissa’s birthday on Tuesday. I almost forgot; after all, it has been almost 30 years since her death.

She was 15 when she died after years of health issues caused by lupus and its associated conditions. Lupus is not usually fatal, even back then. But for kids, the treatment 30 years ago of high doses of steroids could be as fatal as the disease itself. I was 17 years old when her health nosedived, and living 2 hours away from the rest of my siblings. I had escaped London, Ontario and its stifling small town mentality to live with my father in Toronto. There I was an only child for most of the time with the exception of the couple days each month that my siblings would come to Toronto by train to visit my father and I. Actually, I rarely stuck around during those visits, preferring to create new connections with others who didn’t know me since birth, who didn’t share any history with me and who didn’t look at me with sadness and remind me of who and what I had left behind so early in my life. When I think back to that pivot in my life, turning away from my mother altogether and distancing myself from my sister and brothers, it seemed so easy for me. Like flicking a switch. I don’t want this life anymore, I want that one. And so I took that one and this one became a faint hum in the background that only surfaced as inconvenient visits from my siblings from time to time. Until 3 years into it, my sister stopped coming to Toronto with my brothers because she was too sick.

Truth be told, I didn’t much like Melissa when we were young. We always had to share a room. My mother dressed us in horrifying matching outfits. Melissa was an unabashed nose-picker. Everyone gravitated toward her when I wanted attention. Melissa was so much cuter than me and so much tinier. I was solid muscle as a competitive gymnast. She was bird-like and delicate. I wanted to be cute and delicate like her but I was earth and she was light.

When we fought, I would hurt Melissa. With words and kicks and teeth if needed. And she would tell on me and I would lie and they would always believe her. When I eventually ran away from my mother’s home to live with my father, I was sad leaving my younger brother behind. I knew my older brother would be fine and that he would take care of my sister. But my younger brother had always been my baby, my follower and it was like leaving my shadow behind. I had no proof anymore that I existed.

As annoying and cumbersome as they can be, siblings root you in your life. They are witnesses to family history and, even if their understanding of that history is different than yours, it is shared in some capacity and it ties you together. It is a privilege to revisit that history and examine and even heal together. To discuss and reinterpret in your adult voices. I never got to grow up with my sister to laugh at our competitive behaviours and hurtful actions and agree how silly and unimportant it all was. Instead, she died and cheated me out of unburdening myself of all its import.

When I hear my kids fight and declare their hatred for each other, it scares me. And pisses me off. I have always told them that it is indeed a privilege to be growing up together and be able to apologize and forgive the day after a fight or a year after a slight. And I think they know it, even though they might not acknowledge it aloud. My two girls have the sister relationship I wish I could have grown up to have with Melissa. And I insist they maintain it and treat it with the proper respect and care it deserves.

Not too long after Melissa died, my sister Alix was born. She was never meant to replace Melissa, but she did give me another opportunity to cultivate the sister relationship I would never have with Melissa. Being 18 years younger than me, it took her a long time to grow up to be that sister counterpart. But eventually, she grew beyond being my baby to being a sister-best friend and confidante, one I could care for in a way I was never able to with Melissa. She, along with my kids, provided me with a shadow again, proof of mass, weight and purpose. My brothers have always been there and are just as important to me. And we are on an island separated by a history that Alix doesn’t share with us and one that includes a sister that hasn’t been here for a long time. We now all share Alix as part of our collective history but she has missed an important part that only my brothers and I share. But I will always be a part of Alix’s life and her memories because I have been there since the beginning of her time. I have been her sister, and I think a good one, as my daughters have been good sisters to each other. As they will hopefully continue to be. In spite of the bruises they may inflict along the way.

Originally published at on November 6, 2015.

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