I read an article recently by Frank Bruni at the New York Times. It was essentially about the irreplaceable bond that forms between siblings, how it’s more significant than the bond between parent and child or any friends we make during our grand trek through life. He claims it’s something more superb than anything we could even imagine, because it almost defies explanation.
This made me think of my relationship with my younger sister. It’s just the two of us. I am three years and nine months older, and I have to say that I don’t have many memories of my life before she arrived. Maybe that’s because I was still pretty young when she came along, or maybe it’s because my life wasn’t as interesting without her, or maybe because once she got here, my life had a little maternal purpose ready for me to burst forth to become useful and accountable for someone other than my little self.
It’s funny to think of a barely-four-year-old with a strong maternal instinct, but I swear, that’s what it was. Even though we grew up in a two-parent household with fairly overprotective and heavily involved parents, I still looked out for my sister like her life (and mine) depended on it. We climbed trees together and I held onto her shirt so she wouldn’t fall, I followed her around the house when our mom was making dinner so she wouldn’t accidentally trip down the stairs, and I usually stood or walked behind her whenever we went out in public so I could sniff out any potential threats.
Obsessive? I don’t know, it just felt natural to me. I looked out for her, that’s what I did. And I think my behavior was a huge contributing factor in how deep our bond as siblings became. We became so adept at having whispered discussions across the dinner table under the tones of our parents’ words that they rarely noticed we were talking about other things. We were dedicated to our parents, but we were dedicated to each other first and foremost.
Although I have this bond to thank for 19 wonderful years of my sister’s life, the last two years have been almost more difficult than I can bear. You see, for the first 17 years of her life, my younger sister was actually my younger brother.
My sister is a trans* woman, and, on my end at least, that’s the least difficult part of all of it (obviously I can’t speak for her experience; 17+ years of trying to pass for someone she hated is unfathomable). The most difficult part for me was our shifting family dynamic, particularly my shifting from sibling to parent.
Where our family had previously been so tight-knit, it was suddenly unraveling at every seam. Our parents were heartbroken over what they saw as “losing” the son they had loved for so many years, and so overwhelmed by the task of getting to know a second daughter who was suddenly thrust upon them, that I took on the primary parenting role. And it was hell.
At 21, let’s face it, I was still a kid myself. And suddenly I was raising a teenager. I gave her the safe-sex talk, brought her to stay with me at college on the weekends, became involved with her schoolwork and her friends, called the high school when she was being bullied or singled out, helped her gear up for college, and did my best to motivate her to keep living.
And all of that was just scratching the surface. That doesn’t even begin to cover my parental duties when it came to our own parents. Their relationship with my sister was very strained up until about six months ago, and until that point, they became two more people I was parenting. All three of them turned to me for guidance for multiple reasons: I was a Women and Gender Studies student, I was already actively involved in the LGBTQ movement on my college campus, I read and studied anything I could get my hands on concerning my sister’s transition, and because my sister and I had always had a close bond, they thought I was most qualified to understand. We were all floundering, and at the time I was the only potential life raft.
Everyone was in pain. Everyone was scared, hurting, and unsure if things would ever get better. Time healed a lot of wounds, even though a lot of places in all of our hearts are still swollen, sore, and aching. This is a process, and there may never truly be an end. We’re moving forward as a family, with my sister going through the initial steps of hormone therapy and all of us supporting her. It’s no longer about the son or brother we thought we had, it’s now about the daughter and sister we know we have.
Back when I was functioning as the primary parental unit, I didn’t have time to think about much other than how to get everyone through this. I didn’t have time to deal with the things I was feeling. But as my parents transitioned back into the primary parenting roles and my sister truly found herself as their second daughter, I found the time, the ability, and the heart to finally lose control.
I was filled with rage, guilt, envy, joy, relief, sadness, and overwhelming heartbreak all at the same time. In two years I hadn’t been able to acknowledge that this caused me any pain because I was the center spoke that kept the wheel turning. I was angry at the universe, karma, a god I didn’t think existed for letting this shit-storm hit my family. I felt guilty about being upset because I am a straight, cisgender woman with the educational background to handle the basics of this situation, and it was arguably much harder for everyone else involved than it should have been for me. I was envious of all of my friends with either entirely cis families, or families who actively wanted to welcome any trans* child into their midst, who didn’t know the type of hell my family was going through. I was joyful and relieved that I didn’t need to be the parent anymore, and that I could let my life be a little bit about me again. And I was sad and overwhelmed that I had ever felt anything negative about this situation, because my sister and my parents were healthy and safe, and even when it was hard, the love never stopped. In fact, I believe that it was because the love never stopped that it was so hard.
Bruni’s article really made me start to evaluate my current relationship with my sister, and how it is ever-evolving. He makes the point that no one can ever know each other as deeply as siblings, because theirs is the only relationship that has the potential to last through an entire lifetime. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel sometimes like those first 17 years were a little irrelevant. And even then, they are times when they are the only relevant parts.
As difficult as it is to navigate my relationship with my sister, and as much as we hate and resent each other sometimes, our love for one another hasn’t ceased. I know we’re both angry at each other for a lot of pent-up feelings that we don’t know what to do with, and because we sometimes take them out on each other. But one thing I’ve realized is that even though we have treated each other like crap without apology (and I know we have many more years to go working through this), we’ve done it because each other is the one person of whom we have always felt most sure.
I’m never going to leave her, and she’s never going to leave me. And I think that’s what might save us.
Written by Emily Vrotsos
Follow Emily’s musings on having a trans* sibling, books she’s reading, and how she does feminism at Bend it. Break it. All of it. and her gardening and sustainability endeavors at The Outdoor Amateur. She also has fun on Twitter and is a little bit obsessed with Pinterest.