From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

It’s All Relative

Other things may change us, but we start and end with our family.

Anthony Brandt

If someone were to ask me what I would do if I “had it to do all over again,” my answer would be this: I would love my friends and relations so well that no matter what, they would love me back in the same way. No reservations, no quid pro quos. No angst, no sibling rivalry, no holds barred. Maybe then I wouldn’t be wondering now what it is that gets in the way of relationships between people whose connection to one another is so profound that nothing ought to be able to harm it.

I started thinking about this because of the extraordinary and painful rifts that seem to be tearing through the bonds of sisters I know. Has it always been there, I wonder, this awful, almost inevitable hurting of each other’s souls? Are we just now owning it, or has something fundamental gone out of our relational lives, making space for the hot acid of recrimination that appears to creep so readily into the crevices of our hearts? Much has been made of the complex mother-daughter dyad in recent times, but almost no one, it seems, has explored the delicate territory of sisterhood, or friendship for that matter. If not altogether unmapped, those are tough topographies worthy of further exploration.

I became convinced of that when a friend told me with great sadness recently about the falling-out she’d had with her sister shortly before the sister’s death. This was followed by a tearful conversation with one of my favorite cousins whose relationship with her beloved sister had become so fragile that she feared they would never repair the damage done. Shortly afterwards, another cousin, and then another, told similar stories. “She’s not there for me when I need her,” they told me. “She did this or didn’t do that.” “She just doesn’t understand me.” “I love her dearly, but we can’t seem to talk.” “She doesn’t know where I’m coming from.” “There’s too much competition between us.” All of it was familiar to me. I, too, had suffered the emotional split from a much-loved sister and had grieved the change in our relationship for years. It is an experience of loss that only those who have gone through it can know.

In each case, I gave them the same advice. “No matter what your issues are,” I said, “find your way back to what binds you. No matter what it takes: hours of talking together, weeping, screaming, whatever—have it out until you get back in touch with the love, the loyalty, the special relationship you once had. Reclaim your sister before it’s too late. If you don’t, you may live to regret it.” I could say this with quiet authority: I lost my sister, my only, much-loved older sister, before I could reclaim her, and it was too late. Each of them understood me, I think, but none has been able yet to act.

This scenario, while perhaps more dramatic between siblings, isn’t confined just to family. Friendship and other meaningful relationships are destroyed every day over mundane as well as profound issues. One friend of mine, a lifelong friend on my short list of people I could count on, told me recently that an offhand remark of mine had offended her so much that she could not accept my invitation to an annual holiday dinner. I was stunned. Even if I had been unintentionally tactless, was that a reason to virtually end all contact? If I stopped talking to everyone I love who had ever offended me, I thought, life would be a pretty lonely affair.

When did relationships become this cheap, this dispensable? When did we begin to give up on “working things out”? When did we start junk-piling the important connections in our lives and stop stockpiling the reservoirs of forgiveness and tolerance that made family and friendship work in spite of themselves?

I’ve talked to my cousins and my friends about this a lot lately. And every time, a familiar ache roots itself in my chest, and I wonder what would have happened had my sister lived. Would we have done our screaming, weeping and talking until we were able to hug our way back to sisterhood and the bond of sibling connection?

Will her daughters, with whom I struggle so heartily now to forge family ties, ever understand why my heart breaks when they keep me at arm’s length because of the baggage they insist on bearing? Will my cousins reclaim their own sisters before it’s too late?

With all my heart, I hope so. Because they are the lucky ones. They can do it all over again. And that is an opportunity just too good to pass up in this time of fragile friendships, remote relatives and hungry hearts yearning for simple connection.

Elayne Clift

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