“I’m just not sure what to do, or how to help her,” my friend Marie (a pseudonym) said. Her voice trembled slightly. Beneath her words I could hear what she was trying to say: I want so much to do the “right” thing for my sibling, but this situation is so messed up.
Marie was talking about her sister, a bright, talented woman who has been struggling with ongoing health issues. For years, Marie has stood by her sibling in these recurring challenges. As such, Marie wrestles with questions I know all too well: How involved should I be in the care of my adult sibling? What do I do if I see a potentially serious problem no one else in the family is willing to openly acknowledge? Where does my responsibility begin and end? And so, when her sister’s condition took a turn for the worse, Marie was—quite understandably—upset.
Marie and I spoke for over an hour, though it was a weekday morning. Even as a little voice in my head was nagging at me with discouraging comments like You should get back to work and You’re being lazy, staying on the phone so long, I knew better than to take it seriously. In fact, I reminded myself that what I was doing in those moments was the “real” work. When I come to the end of my life, I won’t regret time spent forging true connections.
And I listened, I knew without a doubt that being Willie’s sister had prepared me to empathize with my friend. Having known Marie for years, I knew that she didn’t talk about her sibling’s issues very often. In fact, I sensed that she couldn’t have talked about her sister’s struggles with just anyone. Marie has met Willie. She’s heard our stories; she’s read my posts and columns. She knows about the meltdowns and the fear and the ongoing challenges. She also knows about the bond between us, the shimmering moments that allow us to see beauty first. And knowing these things gave her the freedom to tell the truth about how much she loves her sister, and how hard it can be to keep that love alive.
Marie and I did talk about practical considerations and concrete interventions, but on the whole, she needed a friend more than she needed advice. Indeed, Marie described how her sister’s needs often dictated the family’s decisions, how she’d cast herself in the supportive-sister role for years. In turn, I was able to speak from my own experience, saying, “When you’re trying to figure out what to do, you need to consider both your sister and yourself, your own sanity. It’s easy to get swept up in the drama, but there’s some serious fallout if you stuff down your emotions, your anger and fear. You may not be in crisis, but your needs matter, too.”
She said, “At times I just long for a more ‘typical’ relationship with my sister, you know? A more even footing, maybe. But that’s not how it is with us. And sometimes, I just wish it could be easier.” I nodded. If I had a dollar for all the times I’ve wished for an “easier” relationship with Willie, I’d be a very rich woman. But after all that wishing, I’ve come face to face with a immutable truth: in our hard times, the only way out is through. And, as a corollary: The darkest times give us depth, and greater tenacity. The shadow-days make what really matters stand out in sharp relief.
As such, what I had to offer in that conversation was less my words than the substance of my life. Marie could talk to me about her family’s difficulties and her “above and beyond” sibling responsibilities, knowing that I’d understand a situation with no easy answers. “Thank you,” she said, “for writing what you write. You have no idea how much reading your stories has meant to me.”
Marie and I hung up, and how strange it was. Though nothing about our circumstances (or our siblings) had changed, an intangible something had altered. We weren’t alone in our unanswerable questions, and that made all the difference.