Friday, May 23, 2014

A Strange Comfort

I've always been mindful that a single event can upend your life, but I always thought about them in catastrophic terms, like the loss of a child, detrimental crippling of your body, a horrific crime. I never imagined that my sister's decision to cease communicating with me more than seven years ago could continue to affect me the way it has. This act by one person, in a world of more than seven billion, has changed so much of how I see things, including myself, and how I face the world going forward. It's like the unraveling of a single knot that silently threatens the integrity of the whole quilt.

At several different points during those seven years, I made my mind up to accept it, even though I could make no sense of it. How do you comprehend that someone in your family would rather be rid of you and pretend you are dead, rather than talk through whatever the problems might be? Could I be that unreasonable, impenetrable, uncompromising that she should prefer silence over any combination of the million plus words that exist in the English language? 

But those questions no longer haunt me - not with the same intensity. And I no longer hope and anticipate and dread at the same time that her email address will suddenly pop up in my gmail inbox or that I'll see her phone number on my phone. I no longer plead with my parents to figure out a way to help us, bringing up examples of what others parents have done in similar situations in the books I've read, and no longer have to try to digest their words, What can we do? When has she ever listened to us? I no longer think about how much my children have already grown and how they change every day and how she will never know them as they were today, yesterday, the day before, and so on. I no longer fret over what to tell my children about her, preferring silence to do its job of keeping her nonexistent in their lives. 

I do not limp around like an injured animal. Instead, I rarely talk about it unless someone brings it up or innocently asks about my siblings. I no longer feel the sting of shame when I choose to reveal that she has estranged me. I do what I can to go about my business and live my life in all of its humdrum details. I load the laundry, post photos on Facebook, and dance with my children as we watch the parade at Disneyland. I get hair cuts, manicure my toenails, go on vacations, and chat with other moms at my son's school. 

I tell myself that I found a way to get a handle on the hurt, to tie it up once and for all and tuck it away, not to dismiss it, but at least to move it out of my immediate path.  

What I didn't expect was for it to continue to unravel year after year, left alone as it was. 

Even in the quiet of an ordinary day, I find myself transformed, often into a lesser version of myself. A squabble between my two children hurls me into crisis mode. A minor argument with my husband takes me to a dark place, where I wonder what is wrong with me, why am I not fit to handle any relationship, will no one put up with me? I no longer make friends so easily. I stay guarded, reluctant to put in the effort it takes. A cancelled dinner or a no show at a playdate feels like an affirmation of an uneasy rumbling deep in myself that I suspect must be really true, something others have always known about me.

Even happy or neutral moments stand unprotected. Nothing more than an innocent scene from a Frozen sing-along where I sat between my husband and my four year-old with his enormous bin of butter-drenched popcorn while my two year-old wiggled restlessly on my lap. On the enormous screen, the younger sister Anna protects her older sister Elsa from Hans' sword, playing out "her act of true love," and saves their kingdom forever. As Anna started to thaw, tears gushed out of my eyes, even as I sat very still to avoid calling attention to myself, and my mind flailed wildly, wondering what happened, how did we fail so terribly, why couldn't we find our way to a happy ending.

Or another evening in a resort tucked under the soaring red rocks of Sedona, where I had taken my parents on vacation. A conversation with my mother at the dining table under the hanging lamp while the kids sleep and Jeff and my dad huddle over their iPads. It is here where she lets slip her belief that her children are defective. In my sudden anger, I push her to explain, what is my defect? What is my defect? She blurts out, you are too headstrong, too narrow-minded to understand other people's weaknesses. Suddenly, I realize that she, who could find no way to help us even as I begged, holds me at fault for the breach between us because I'm the one she always described as tough, and my sister, delicate. Under that hanging lamp, I felt that thread further unravel.

Before, I would never have described myself as cynical or bitter. But now, if someone were to ask what bitterness tastes like, I would describe it in delicious detail.

The other day, I was reading an article about a child of murdered parents who was eventually adopted by the police officer who found her at the crime scene. Talking about the policewoman who became her mother, the child who is now a young woman said, "She taught me what it was like to hope and to truly trust; if ever in life I didn't think things would work out, I could trust her, and I would just put all my trust in her and she would get me through to the other side."

Reading that made me think about how I've undergone something akin to the reverse of this process. This estrangement from my sister has taken away much of what I had taken for granted: the belief that there are people in this world who will always be there for you, that your family is for keeps. I no longer have this faith that things will work out, and I feel anxious about putting all of my trust in a single person, even my husband.

In the midst of this pessimism, I opened a book two days ago and didn't put it down until I was done. Sonali Deraniyagala's Wave. It is a memoir by a woman who lost her two children, her husband, and her parents in the 2004 tsunami. I feared reading it after skimming the description, but downloaded it impulsively on my kindle and plunged in. I could not stop turning page after page, even as I read clenching my muscles and holding my breath. Often, I feared the upcoming sentences, afraid that they would feel too real. And many times, they did. Her boys, her husband, the author's despair, her terrible loss. She experienced the worst of my fears, and somehow she is still alive. She found a way to live. I could not understand how. How do you live after such a devastation?

One of her passages early in the book stayed with me. As she watched the tsunami approaching from her hotel, she ran holding her children's hands as her husband ran behind them. She did not stop to knock on her parents' door next to hers. She just ran. She had no time. Her job was to save her children. As I read it, I understood her. I did not judge her or wonder why she did not stop to try to save her parents. I understood.

Thinking about that helped me put some of this into context. The immediacy of my family.  

I also thought about the devastation I would feel if I lost my children and Jeff. Reading Sonali's book helped me realize the depth of that devastation. The estrangement from my sister in that context is really nothing. If I lost my children and Jeff, I wouldn't know how to live. And that thought has never occurred to me about my sister's estrangement. Realizing that is a strange comfort.

1 comment:

  1. I felt sad when I saw that scene from "Frozen," too! As you know, my sister rarely talks to me. In fact, I am missing my "annual" phone call from her. I posted earlier that I feel like you and I are twins. I meant that I feel like we are the same person--which is both comforting and disconcerting at the same time!