The average baby talks during its second year of life. Me on the other hand—I was a little late. In the shadow of my sister, I was always a little late. My pediatrician warned my parents of the possibility that I was mute. I’ve always felt like normal parents should have been at least mildly concerned with this, but mine were nonchalant. One of the questions my pediatrician asked my parents was if my sister talked for me, to which they answered “no, certainly not, never.”
Recently, while I was watching old home movies with my mom, I became aware of a common theme that was hard to ignore: my sister said and did everything for me. She was a shadow from which I could not escape; under which I cowered and receded for many years.
I love my sister; she is my best friend. However, we were not always the dynamic duo, sidekick pair that we are today. I was quietly jealous of her. My sister got better grades, she never threw temper tantrums like me. She was the one to start a conversation; I was the one who stayed quiet and reserved.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school when I realized I needed my big sister—and that she needed me. She was a mess, and she wouldn’t talk to any of us. But when she finally did, I could tell by the way she moved and spoke that she was hurting. That’s one of the perks of being a listener your entire life: I can tell when people are hurting, and my family, my sister especially, was hurting.
I don’t know if I will ever understand what was happening in my family during the time that my sister was gone, but it had started years before it had ever affected me. I do know, though, that my sister needed to leave in order for me to wake up, and she needed to leave in order for all of us, even her, to start healing.
After all the years she had talked for me, I finally got to listen for her. There were tears, there was laughter, there was trust and understanding that we had never been able to find before.
That was the year my sister became my best friend. Unfortunately that was also the year she moved away to college. Dinners then consisted of dry conversations with my parents about things I pretended to care about, but such superficial discussions eventually led to silence. I like silence, but not this kind. This was the kind of silence that made you want to rip out your hair: it fucking ate away at you. It was the kind that made you want to scream. It was the kind that made you feel uncomfortable to swallow your food. This kind of silence could make a person go crazy.
When my sister left—it forced me to come out of my shell. I could not only speak at the dinner table, but the silence made it so I had to. And this time my parents had to listen. I essentially became more like her after she was gone. I started to fill the little holes that she had left in all of us; I started to recognize my membership within our family.
I know now how big of a shadow my sister had cast on me. How could I be blind to something that was so obvious to everyone around me? I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little mad at my sister—for taking away my voice, for being so sick that my parents didn’t have any concern left for me. While my issues were quiet, well hidden and easily ignored, my sister’s were loud, and they demanded attention whether or not my parents knew what to do about them. Even so, the majority of me is thankful. I’m thankful for everything my sister has ever done. And some people think I’m insane for looking up to her as much as I do, after everything she has put me through. But I’ve put her through things, too. She did do everything for me as a child but she also taught me how to be my own person; she taught me how to grow up.
That’s the thing about people: you can hate them and love them all at the same time, but you will never need them more than when they leave. And my sister left. But she came back: she was better than before, and so were the rest of us, and now she needs me as much as I need her.