In October, my older sister Tammy and her husband will celebrate their first wedding anniversary, and in the lead up to this milestone I’m remembering how I felt on their wedding day: joyous, mixed with a sense of loss and some resentment (and then guilt upon feeling resentful). A sibling’s anniversary might not seem like a big deal, but it’s significant to our family because it’s such an anomaly. Tammy is the only married sibling out of the five of us, and despite being very different people we’re all incredibly close – each of us having a hand in the other’s business whether we like it or not, with relationships no exception.
Writer David Sedaris perfectly captures my feelings towards my siblings in an essay he wrote for The New Yorker last year that was about his late sister Tiffany’s suicide. He describes his family as “the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of”. When bad things happened, like our parents’ divorce or being racially abused in our hometown, we siblings clung together and propped each other up. And when good things happened, like one of us winning a giant stuffed toy at the royal show or graduating from university, we celebrated wildly as a tribe. We did everything together and our gatherings were invite-only, which is why it felt unsettling to have a stranger thrust into our midst – someone we embraced because he loved our sister, but who was a stranger nonetheless.
During the period between Tammy’s engagement and her wedding, I drifted ceaselessly between two emotional states: happiness for her and profound anxiety about what her marriage would mean for our relationship as sisters. Author Joan Didion once wrote “marriage is the classic betrayal” and the betrayals came like small, persistent blows. I saw my sister less as she spent more time with her fiancé and in-laws. We never hung out alone. And we hardly ever spoke to each other anymore, which felt jarring because we were best friends and had lived together for most of our adult lives. I felt like she didn’t need me anymore, and my unease was only compounded by our history as sisters.
Growing up, we were enemies who had a classic older-younger sibling dynamic: I thought she was the coolest and shadowed her everywhere, and she couldn’t stand me and avoided me at all costs. Sometimes she’d relent when I nagged her to play and I’d score a couple of rounds of handball, but most times she’d lock me out of her room and slip notes under the door demanding that I leave. But by the time we were both at university, we’d become good friends. Suddenly we had the same interests and dilemmas, and could have adult conversations about boys and family and what we planned to do with our careers. We spent so much time together we adopted the same mannerisms and intonations, and were able to express incommunicable things to each other with a simple widening of the eyes or cocking of an eyebrow. We sounded so similar that our dad would confuse us on the phone despite the fact he was the one calling.
Over the years, I had lost my sister and gained her back, and now I was losing her again. Now that she’d entered a different life stage, everything about her seemed to change: her speech, her dress, her friendship group and her interests. We had less and less in common and I felt powerless as we drifted apart. Being part of a close-knit family, having my sister torn from our ranks and adopted by another family was strange. Rarely seeing her was stranger. Having the only conversations we shared revolving around weddings and babies and surname changes was the strangest. But instinctively, I knew to shut up about it when I was around her. She was happy, which was what mattered, and I didn’t want that to change. And what if telling her how I truly felt only widened the growing gap between us?
It wasn’t the right time to tell her how I felt as we shopped for wedding dresses. It wasn’t the right time when I was walking down the aisle holding a bridesmaid’s bouquet and feeling pretty bittersweet about the whole thing. It wasn’t the right time to tell her when we saw Frozen together and I burst into tears because it was all so relevant. It wasn’t the right time to tell her how I felt until now, a year later, when the dust has settled enough for us to comprehend the cosmic shift that’s taken place in our family’s universe.
It’s hard to be upfront with the people you love most – those who know you best and vice versa, with whom you share a deep and complex bond, and who it would be the most devastating to hurt. When I nervously told Tammy that I was writing this piece, she was as always open and interested to hear my thoughts. “I had an idea of how the other siblings felt, but maybe it’s different for you because you’re the youngest.” I explained that it was too hard for me to say anything at the time and she nodded, understanding as usual. And then, like many difficult conversations had between siblings, we dropped the subject, forgetting about it for the time being so we could get on with the business at hand, which at the time was my shamelessly rorting her assistance in moving house.
Now Tammy’s marriage only feels like a gain; her husband and his family are wonderful people and we’re lucky to have them in our lives. Things have settled down and now we see each other more, and I’ve come to realise that it would be impossible to lose my sister to marriage. Relationships aren’t replaceable because they’re all different. You need partners, siblings and best friends for different reasons; lots of people comprise a person’s world and it’s unhealthy to be possessive or clingy.
Over time, more things in my sister’s life will change. There will be more anniversaries, and moves, and one day even children. But despite all those changes, we’ll still be sisters. We’ll still communicate using only a glance or laugh, and we’ll still share idiosyncrasies and jokes that nobody else understands. She’ll always be there and love me unconditionally (I hope) and vice versa. And our dad still confuses us on the phone sometimes. Those are the things that will never change.