There are five girls and two boys in my family. My mother had her first six children in seven years and me - six years after her sixth child was born. There is a 13-year age separation between me, the youngest - and my sister Mary, the oldest.
That's a big age difference between siblings.
When I was a baby, my oldest sister was crazy over me.
The day I was born, my sister Mary rode her bike all the way from our home in Maynard to the hospital in Concord ... several miles ... to see me. When my mother went shopping for a new carriage when I was just a few weeks old, Mary was walking me in a particular model and people stopped her to say, "Oh, your baby is beautiful!" and my mother quickly corrected, "She isn't the mother, she's the SISTER and she's only 13!!"
Mary always looked and acted older. I suspect it's because she had a lot of responsibility as the oldest child of a large family. The expectations are always greater on the first born - and the consequences more severe. Although I have a few memories of my oldest sister when I was young, they are sparse. By the time I had any "real" memories of my childhood, Mary had already graduated from high school and was moved out of the house.
But I do remember that one year for Easter she bought what everyone thought was a male white rabbit. But then, as if by magic, a few weeks later, there were ten bunnies in the cage.
I remember driving around seated next to her in the red 1976 Ford Mustang my parent's bought for her to run "deliveries" from our family pharmacy. I remember that she would drink Tab in a big pink plastic cup and whenever she'd push in the clutch, she'd let me shift the gears on the manual transmission.
I also remember her bedroom - a space converted in our attic - that was especially cool. I remember there was an acoustic guitar up there. And a funky couch. And some neat lighting and her leather purse with flowers embossed on the side and an ivory fixture to hold it closed. And there was nail polish. There was always nail polish.
When Mary got married at 20, she bought me a diamond ring. It was a tiny chip of a stone, but it was a diamond ring, all the same. I remember being the flower girl in her wedding. I remember sobbing on the dance floor as she left for her Honeymoon. At the young age of seven, I knew that my relationship with my big sister would never be the same.
Whether a factor of her birth order - or spirit - or alignment of the moons on the day she was born, my sister Mary is tough. She has always been a force to be reckoned with and as far back as I can remember, she intimidated me.
There was the time that she broke up a fight in a local school yard when one of the neighborhood children was being relentlessly bullied by two older kids and Mary beat them both up and sent them home crying.
There was the time that she dropped me off at my father's house the year that my parent's divorced and when my (soon to be) step-mother had a confrontation with Mary, my sister grabbed her around the neck and pinned her to the wall with threats of death and other bodily harm.
And then there was the time she and I (and her two children) were driving home from a restaurant in South Carolina and I told her to go left - when she should have gone straight - and we wound up on Interstate 85 headed to Atlanta. I remember feeling absolutely panicked that OH MY GOSH I don't know where I am going and my sister is going to KILL me because her plane leaves tomorrow back to Massachusetts and we are heading to GEORGIA.
Plain and simple, I was afraid of her. But my mother who was exceptionally close to Mary, always supported my sister and told me that she had a difficult time in her life.
There was a lot I didn't understand.
When she was young she walked in on a situation with my father and then, went on to tell my mother about Daddy's girlfriend. Witnessing an act where her father betrayed not only her mother - but her entire family - is something that I'm certain has been seared in to her mind.
Her first husband was a man that she had met in pharmacy school. They divorced less than two years later, but that did not deter her ex-husband (or my father) from working as a pharmacist in my father's drug store for the next 10 years.
Mary went on to remarry. She gave birth to her first child - and had a nearly simultaneous appendectomy - when she was 23. She sadly miscarried her next child, a little boy, when she was five-months pregnant and shortly thereafter, became pregnant again. Just as she was entering her third trimester, she was driving to work one bright morning and was hit broadside by a vehicle that ran a red light when the driver was blinded by the sun. She suffered a broken neck, a fractured skull and multiple contusions all over her body.
During her fourth and final pregnancy, days before she was scheduled to deliver by repeat c-section, she slipped on her way down the icy back stairs of her Massachusetts home, and slid face first, down an entire flight of concrete steps.
Thankfully, after both severe accidents, the babies were born healthy.
Whenever I would go to Massachusetts, I would invariably spend several days or a week - at Mary's home. During these times I always sensed tension. My sister worked and she was raising her family and I felt like it was a terrible burden for her to also be looking after her 13-year junior sibling and arranging all the transportation to and from my father's home, an hour away.
Still, she gave me a lot more leniency than I could expect at my father's house. When my long-term boyfriend from high school wanted to fly up and visit me for a few days, my father refused and yet Mary graciously let him stay at her house.
When her youngest child was five, Mary and her second husband divorced.
Once I moved away to college, my relationship with Mary became even more distant. I wasn't visiting Massachusetts as often and so our interaction was far less frequent. She had her life, I had mine and they were vastly different. Although we might see each other whenever I would fly back to Massachusetts, we really didn't have very much in common. My mother and I were close - and my mother and Mary were close. It is through my mother, that I maintained any knowledge of what was happening in my sister's life.
Even though my sister was crazy over me when I was a baby, as I grew older - our relationship never matured. If anything, it dissolved. As time went on, whenever I would see her, I felt hatred. I could tell that she didn't like me and I never could figure out what I had done wrong.
Was it because she was jealous of my relationship with my mother?
Was she jealous or disapproving of my relationship with my father and his second wife?
Or did she just think that I was a selfish brat?
I honestly couldn't figure it out.
But I wasn't myself when I was around her. I felt like she was constantly judging me and I would feel anxious just knowing that we would be in mixed company. It was always stressful because I was exceptionally careful of what I would say - how I would act - what I would do.
Five years ago, in the Spring of 2003, everything came to a head. We had a falling out and we haven't spoken since. But the details of the argument are as clear to me now, as they were then.
My father had turned 70 two years prior, and my sister Beth requested that I invite my father and his wife to mom's party. Because, my stepmother had invited my mother to my father's surprise 70th birthday party and it would be polite to reciprocate the gesture.
I had reservations about inviting my father to my mother's party. The circumstances with my father's party were hugely different because my father had remarried and had someone in his life. At the time of my mother's birthday party, she had not yet begun dating Jim. Not to mention, there has always been a terrible amount of pain surrounding the divorce that my mother has had a difficult time releasing and having my father at her birthday party would only cause more hurt.
But my sister persisted. After she asked for the third time if I'd mailed the invitation to dad, I finally relented. I dropped it in the mail and figured that if dad replied that he would be attending the party - which I highly doubted - I would gently tell him that maybe it would be better for mom if he didn't come. But, I never considered that we'd even get to that point because surely dad wouldn't come to mom's birthday party.
A few days before my birthday, I received an e-mail from my sister Mary, which she copied to my sister Eileen, that expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with "my decision" to send my father an invitation. The decision, which wasn't even "my decision" and wound up being a moot point because my father did eventually decline.
But her e-mail contained some of the most hurtful words anyone has ever directed to me. It felt like I had been punched in the gut. I couldn't believe that her words were real. Maybe she was joking or I had interpreted them wrong? I read the note to Charlie and he was just as shocked as I had been.
After an hour of feeling terrible, I poured myself a big fat glass of wine and hit "REPLY."
To my sister Mary, I wrote in return everything that I wished I had the courage to pick up the phone and tell her. I told her that it wasn't even my idea to invite my father to the party. And because I was angry and hurt, I also added a lot of nastiness and ugliness that wasn't necessary. Then, I hit "SEND."
And I poured myself another big fat glass of wine and hit "REPLY" again.
And I wrote more and more and more. And the words just kept coming out of me like there was no tomorrow. Words that were applicable to the note she had written to me - and words that were applicable to things that had happened years prior - and words that had no applicability to anything at all.
How DARE she call me insensitive. How DARE she tell me that I would be better off never having children. How DARE she call me bad names in front of her hair stylist that time we were at her salon in 1992. How DARE she do anything to intentionally hurt me.
How about I judge her?
The failed marriages and the strained relationships with her children?
HOW. DARE. SHE.
My mother's party came and went. Mary was there, even though she had written in her e-mail to me that she wouldn't be. Although I had flown 3,000-miles cross country and hadn't seen her in two years, we didn't speak. We didn't even look at each other.
My mother was crushed, but I was adamant that I was right. Of course I had done nothing wrong. So what if Mary had a life of hurt, why should I be subject to her poison? And equally important, why wasn't any one defending me?!
When I became a mother in 2004, we didn't speak. She didn't acknowledge my triplet pregnancy ... my children's birth ... or the six weeks they spent in the NICU. According to my mother, when someone crossed Mary, that person became "dead" to her. So I assumed that in my sister's eyes, I no longer existed. And that was fine by me.
But that first year of my children's life, something happened.
Maybe it was seeing my children and imagining just how terrible it would be if they were ever estranged from each other, if they ever did something to hurt one another. Or maybe it was my mother - pleading with me - to please write Mary a letter of forgiveness and move on.
Whatever the case, when our babies were scheduled to be Dedicated at the church where Charlie and I were married, I sent Mary an invitation. I wrote her a simple note wherein I said that I was sorry and I hoped we could put the past behind us. She never responded, nor did she attend the Dedication.
More time passed.
She broke up with her fiancé and moved to South Carolina to be closer to my mother and start a new life. I began sending her simple Christmas and birthday cards. And then last year, totally unexpected, she mailed me a beautiful blanket and hat that she had knit for Henry with a handwritten note of congratulations. My fourth child wore the hat home from the hospital that my oldest sister had made for him and when we go for walks, I drape him in the blanket she knitted.
Last year, Mary took a two-week trip to Germany with my father, a man from whom she had been estranged until his recent divorce. Just when I thought she was perhaps finding peace in her life, the relationship that she had with my mother ... the one person who had loyally stood by her side for everything that she had been through ... completely dissolved, less than a year after she had moved to South Carolina.
My mother didn't tell me at first. She was terribly upset and embarrassed to think that Mary would turn on her. Yet all of the anger that I had felt directed at me over the years - that no one could understand or would believe - was now directed at my mom. And it seemed that the fragile relationship that I had tried to foster with my sister was derailed.
It's been so long since I've spent any real energy thinking about Mary. Whenever I've thought about her, I've been drained for days. This post alone has taken me almost three days to write and I've been consumed with trying to get my thoughts out.
Although I've often wished things were different with my sister and I wished that she liked me the way that she likes my other sisters, I've come to terms with the fact that our relationship will never be a close one. Any relationship that we had before - however superficial - was destroyed by the wildfire of our emotions.
I was burned. She was burned. Mom was burned.
But I believe that even after the most severe fires, the potential exists for new growth.
My sister is is very talented. She is a gifted knitter and gardener. She has a knack for remodeling and restoring homes. She is an accomplished and respected pharmacist. She has one of the strongest work ethics I've ever seen. And now, I fully realize that she really has endured a great amount of pain in her life.
Two weeks ago, on about the same day that I displayed the prominent breast cancer ribbon link on my blog, my sister Mary was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Ironically, I wouldn't find out about her diagnosis until several days later.
I am writing all of this out because I believe that on some level, people might relate to this story. Perhaps they have a relationship with someone that is, or has been, toxic. Perhaps they have reconciled - or moved on, never once looking back.
But it's tough to not look back when it's your sister.
Some people cover their hurts up with bandages. They internalize pain or try and pretend it doesn't exist. For me, the best way to heal is to expose a wound. And that is the real reason I have written this post.
I will reach out to Mary. I will send her a letter and tell her that I'm terribly sorry that she is facing such a significant health challenge in her life. I am sorry that we aren't closer. I am sorry that life might not be working out the way that she had planned. I am sorry that she has had so much pain - and I hope with everything I am - that she will find peace in her heart.
It won't be easy to put my emotions out there like that, but I will. And I can only hope that she will receive them well. I am so sad about the challenges that my sister will face. But I believe that this experience holds the potential to be an amazingly healing one for her.
On many levels.