Saturday, July 13, 2013

Giving Up

For several months, I had been seized by a lingering headache. A dull throbbing, as if someone put a vice on my temples, tightening it ever so slightly. The other day, I realized that I've been having an ongoing dialogue with my sister in my head, going over snippets of what I could remember of our arguments, replaying her complaints, trying to decipher what she was saying, trying to see them from a new angle. Sometimes, I'm pleading with her, other times trying to reason, and then on other occasions, screaming and cursing her out. Depending on what's going on in my head, I'm either hopeful, resigned, or angry. And when I'm angry, the anger seethes out. And then the tears fall, whether I'm with Jeff, my kids, or some random stranger.

I realized that I've been doing this for the past seven years, ever since she estranged me. Trying to find some way to open a channel of communication. Trying to find my way out of this Kafka-esque maze, trying to shake the surreal out of my reality. Last month, I went to New York after avoiding it for three years, reluctant to go back and be hit in the face with our broken family, reluctant to put my parents in the awkward position of dealing with their daughters in separate transactions, as if we were hostile animals to be kept in separate cages. I finally decided to return, because I no longer had my children's ages as an excuse for not traveling long distance, because I no longer wanted to live in avoidance.

We decided to tack it on after my college reunion in Chicago to avoid making two trips to the East Coast. Soon after we arrived in New York, I found out that my sister's wedding at City Hall was scheduled to be held that week. What crappy planning on our part. How worse could our timing have been?

It turned out to be a strange week, with me encouraging my mom to wear a dress, not trousers, to the wedding and urging her not to show up empty handed, even if she already gave them a big fat check. Then shopping with my mom to help her buy a dress for the event, helping her pick out a wedding present, a card, wrapping paper. Then driving her back to Rite Aid because the wrapping paper turned out to be clear cellophane instead of silver lining. Listening to my parents talk through the logistics of the day, figuring out which train to take to the city. Me, always the dutiful daughter, offering to drive them to the train station so that they wouldn't have to walk blocks in their get up from the only lot that wasn't filled by mid-morning. Watching Jeff drive off with them in my place to go to the train station so that I could avoid making a scene in front of them with my mom's makeup all done. Standing next to my mother as she talks to my sister on the phone listening to her explain why she can't come out to Long Island to meet us for dinner even though Jeff and I are visiting with our kids.

In the midst of all this, I found myself seething at my parents. When all this started, I had begged them to help me somehow. To help us with this breach. To try to find some way to help us resolve this. But they claimed to be powerless. When does she ever listen to us, they said. What can we do? 

I found myself screaming at them. You're the parents. Show some leadership. Other parents figure out a way to help. Why can't you! Why are you so passive? When have I ever asked you to help me before? I'm so angry at you, so angry. 

My parents advised that's how things are sometimes. You grow older, you grow apart. You now have your own family to worry about. Siblings can't stay close when you have your own lives. 

I was disgusted by their sense of fatalism, their passivity. I argued with them and tried to convince them of their power, their ability to persuade, to lead. To keep the family together.

I found myself vowing never to come back. It's too hard, I told my mom. It hurts too much.

The rest of the visit, however, was amazingly pleasant, despite all this. We arrived to find the house immaculate and stocked with all things organic, including bags of cherries, pints of blueberries and raspberries, cereal, milk, meat, and even the bath and hand soap, this from my parents who had previously stepped into their local Whole Foods once. They splurged the kids with new gifts of toys and mounds of snacks. And they had rounded up all the toys they could find remaining from our childhood days.

Most mornings, we packed a huge bag of snacks and piled into our rental minivan, where my mom sat next to our son, and my dad next to my daughter (who found it amusing to wave at them periodically during the drive when she wasn't napping). We spent the days as tourists with my parents, visiting the Museum of Natural History, the Long Island Children's Museum, the Cradle of Aviation Museum. Taking a cruise around the Statue of Liberty. My children rode a carousel with my parents, who said they might as well since when are they going to have another opportunity. My mom first insisted on riding the horse that pumped up and down, but as the whirl of the power started, she jumped off and plopped next to my dad on the fixed bench. We spent two mornings at a driving range where our son played putt putt golf with my parents, even though the grounds were sopping wet from rain the prior day. After, they yelled at the guy working on the golf course to get the train out, their grandkids wanted a ride. The guy ran over to some rusty shed and came out creaking in a 4 car train, dutifully blowing the horn to let the kids know that the train had arrived. We all then piled on and sat in that damn thing as the guy drove us over a rubbled path and circled the parking lot twice. The remaining mornings, we spent with our kids giggling in a kiddie pool in my parents' backyard while Jeff menaced with the water hose.

Then, every day, just hours after we had stuffed ourselves with a full breakfast, they herded us to a restaurant where they ordered dishes upon dishes, encouraging us to eat, heaping food on our kids' plates. When they saw how well our son ate at their favorite Korean BBQ place, they made plans to return three days later. Then after we had stuffed ourselves, they had us pull over at a Korean grocery or Whole Foods so that we could pick up more food. And as we drove home, my dad pointed out to my three and half year old son every single golf driving range or course on which he had played.

As our visit unfolded, I found myself exhausted. But with a slightly different perspective.

I started to realize that it's time to give up hope. To give up hope of having a cohesive family. To give up hope of reconciling. To give up some romantic version of the Waltons that we'll never be. When I found out about my sister's wedding, I realized that a part of me had been holding out for an invitation to the wedding, because my mom had told me late last year that she planned to invite me. How foolish I had been to hope for some reconciliation after all these years. Let's face it. When someone hasn't talked to you in seven years, you aren't getting a damn invitation to her wedding. And it's time to face that. We're never going to reconcile. Not after seven years.

When someone refuses to talk to you for seven years, nothing can change. They are not willing to entertain any new set of facts, any new piece of information to inform their actions. They don't want to see it through a new perspective. They have already made up their minds. They have closed themselves off. It's so obvious now, but I don't know why I didn't see that before.  

Even if I had anything new to say, I don't even think it'll make a difference. For most of our adult lives, I had been such a good sister to her. I don't think she would deny it. I always thought of her and always included her in my life. I can't remember a single close friend of mine that I didn't introduce her to. I remember her calling me when she was in high school, needing help convincing my parents to let her go to her choice of college. And I did as requested, talking to my parents for hours on the phone, doing all I could to convince them. I remember keeping her boyfriends secret from my parents and always being available to listen to her talk about the guys in her life, her work situation, her friends, her books. I always invited her out to visit me wherever I lived, sometimes her and her friend, paying for her plane tickets and whatever expenses she incurred during her visit. I remember going out to North Carolina to help her move, even getting stung by a bee in the eye during the process, and doing that again when she was living in New York. I remember taking her on a trip to the Yosemite, to LA, to Paris, paying for all of the expenses, the tickets, figuring out our itinerary for the whole week. I remember always buying her a souvenir first before even buying my own whenever I went away on a trip. I remember helping her move in with me in San Francisco, buying her ticket, clearing out a room for her, buying her new furniture, even when I was strained with my new mortgage in my new house, and throwing her a brunch so that she could meet all of my friends.

Despite all that, she didn't see any point in giving me the benefit of the doubt. Of taking pause before kicking me to the curb. Not that I think I should get a free pass. No, but I should have had some reserve of goodwill to at least warrant a second chance before exile. But it made no difference. So why should anything I do in the future make any difference?

What hurts the most is that she gave me no room to be a human being, blind to my own flaws. And that she cut off any hope of me learning from her, growing from our tensions, gaining a new perspective as a result. I remember her complaining that I demeaned her by ordering for her in the restaurants when we ate out. And now I look back and think it so strange that I did that. Why did I do that? So strange. But maybe not so strange in a family where I order for my parents at every restaurant. But whatever the reason, she gave no latitude for me to be blind to my own actions, to have the generosity to accept that I may have some human flaws that I could one day overcome.

But it hardly matters now. That reconciliation is never going to happen. I see that now. I told my parents this time. I told them my expectation that I will not see her until one of their funerals. Their eyes widened but they nodded along.

But I'm also realizing that we could be a family without my sister. Me, with my kids and Jeff, and my parents. We could still be a family. And I don't have to wedge my sister in the middle to make us cohesive. We could still be a family with just us, without her.

I let this problem with my sister get in the way of my relationship with my parents. Because I blamed them. I blamed them for not being able to help us. I thought they had failed in one of their basic functions as a parent. I also blamed them for us getting into this predicament in the first place. For putting me in the role of the domestic taskmaster while they worked 16 hour days. For making me my sister's keeper. For using me as a conduit to speak to her when they couldn't figure out a way to connect with her directly. For using me to influence her when they abandoned their own powers. But my dad is in his 70s now, my mom in her late 60s. There's too little time left to quarrel.

After our plane landed in San Diego, I called my parents to let them know that we had arrived. My mom answered. After the initial greetings, she said, "I wish we could come out to visit you once a year and you could come out to New York once a year." I found my responding, "Maybe, Mom. Maybe..."


  1. Oh wow. That was a great post. I mean.. the content must have been so hard for you to write but I hope it was worth writing for you.

    I haven't talked to my sister for the past 7-8 years either... i would call her if something terrible happened, my if our mom or dad died... but i feel that she is a stranger now. i have no expectations of reconciling or not reconciling with her.. but i am up for whatever happens. it's really not in my control.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your heart with us. I hope those headaches go away.

    1. Hi, Mary, as always, thanks so much for reading and commenting. The headaches have gone away! And I think you're right -- it's all about having no expectations.

  2. I think there's some sort of drama in most families. For a long time I had this insecurity and resentment for having such a 'disfuctional' family. But healing or acceptance came after the realisation, reminder, and acceptance that people are broken, everyone of us, and therefore no life can be 'perfect'. There's still pain from lingering memories of past hurts and in unchanging behaviour from some of my family members, but we all try to continue to live and mend those hurts the best we can, even if those attempts are still imperfect. Hoping for peace in your decisions. Blessings. P.S.: I'm a reader through Kimchi Mammas who's been a fan of your writing for some time. :)

    1. Your comment is so insightful. It is about the shame and resentment -- but you're also right that it's about finding a way to mend, even if imperfectly. Thanks so much for your comment -- and I look forward to browsing your blog!

  3. I am so sorry she closed all the doors on you. You are so strong to write this here. But I am not surprised, after 7 years of hurt, this is almost "nothing".
    Please never loose your hope, like Mary said don't have any expectations.
    I know it is hard, really hard... but life is full of surprises, anything is possible.

    1. Anonymous, you're so right -- this is almost "nothing." It took me a long time to get here, but I'm so glad I did. I feel more "liberated" than I have in the past 7 years.

  4. My grandfather and my uncle did not speak for almost 20 years, but eventually reconciled. My uncle was certainly in the wrong and did not admit fault for that long, but it eventually happened. I would be open to the possibility, but acknowledge that it may be long in coming.