There are four of us. I have three siblings. I am the oldest. I have a sister, Susan, who is 14 months younger than me and two brothers, Sammy and Terry, three years and five years younger than me, respectively. I saw my brothers this weekend on the occasion of the death of one of Momma’s siblings. The death of Aunty Shirley really made me think of the importance and uniqueness of the sibling relationship.
I had lunch with Momma and her sister, Aunt Carol Ann, and her brother, whom we call Uncle Bumpy. I have no idea why he is called that, but I’ve called him that all my life. Maybe that calls for a little research…but, that’s a blog for another day. As we ate lunch and discussed the death of their sister and the recent deaths of Uncle Bumpy’s wife and Aunt Carol Ann’s son, I thought of how significant it was to lose a sibling. For the first time in their lives, their sibling gathering was not four people. For the first time, they were three.
I know things about my siblings that I will take to my grave. Those are their stories to tell. And, it’s not that these are secret stories, they are just stories of growing up and learning things the hard way, the way we all learn them. They are stories of intensely personal events that took place within the walls of the immediate family home. My siblings know stories about me that no one else knows. We have experienced some of the same events as children, but we all have our unique interpretations and reactions to them. I can tell the stories of my childhood to others, but my siblings lived them. I don’t have to tell them anything. They already know.
My sister and I shared a bedroom. So, she really knows a lot about me. We even shared a bed when we were really little. We played together, argued, fought and cried together more times than I could ever count. We’ve been through times when we were not close, and we’ve been through times where nothing could separate us. We look alike. We look so much alike that people can’t tell us apart. After the wake Sunday, Susan called me. She said she could hear people whispering to each other, “Is that Susan or Sharon?” She giggled. Things never change. I answer as easily to Susan as I do Sharon. And as much as we are alike, we are totally different. Susan chose my Christmas presents by looking for something she hated. She knew I’d love it. We had totally different styles.
I was grown and gone by the time my brothers were in high school, so I missed a lot of their growing up years. I just remember being a tomboy and playing baseball with them in our backyard. Terry was sort of my favorite because he was the baby, and everybody picked on him. He acted like he was tough and was always willing to fight, but I got the sense that he was very sensitive. I really tried to appeal to that side of him. Sammy was athletic and a great student. I think I just thought Terry needed me more.
We are a family of writers. Even though none of us except Daddy wrote for a living, we all write. And, we are all good writers. For my 50th birthday, each of my siblings wrote me letters. It was then that I started thinking about the sibling relationship and how unique it is. Every one of them wrote at length about the time I moved out to go live in South Texas and work for a newspaper. I was the first to move out and get a job. For me, I was just going on with my life, and it was very exciting. But, for the ones left behind, it was different. My sister said, “I was inconsolable. I cried for an entire day.” WHAT???? I had no idea. She said she knew I would be back, but things would never be the same. And, she was right. Both of my brothers watched me launch with great interest to see how I would fare. They both described this at length. They wanted to see the first one of us go out and make a life and see if it could be done. I do remember that time being scary for me. I didn’t know if I could make it on my own. But, apparently, they were watching, too. If I’d known they were watching, maybe I would have been a better role model. But, then again, I did the best I could.
As rewarding as the sibling relationship is, it is just as difficult. As we are growing up, we have a drive to be special. It only makes sense that we often form our personalities in opposition to our closest relationships, our siblings. I see it in our family. I joke that one day my brothers will run against each other in a heated political election. They have such differing views on the world. These differences, natural sibling rivalries and other natural relationship stressors can sometimes take a toll on sibling relationships. For every pair of siblings I know that are close, I know a pair that haven’t spoken in years. And, in each of those breaks, there is a deep sense of loss even if there is nothing more than can be done to repair the divide.
As I lunched with Momma and her siblings this weekend, I realized what a loss it must be to lose the first sibling to death. Aunt Shirley is someone Momma knew her entire life. She was the oldest so she was there when Momma was born. They were friends until Aunt Shirley died. How do you walk through that first day and the following days without someone who has always, ALWAYS been there? For that set of siblings, it must be really hard to realize now that they are three…and one is forever gone. It really made me think about my siblings and what that would feel like. I just can’t imagine the loss. In fact, I asked Momma how she was doing, and she said, “This is harder than when Momma died.” I believe it.
If things go in a logical order, I will go first. But, of course, it rarely happens that way. There will be untimely illnesses, accidents and other things that may screw up the natural order. But, if things do go in order, what will it be like for my siblings when they are three? Will it be like when I went off to another place after college? Will I be blazing a new frontier beyond the veil? After all, since I’m the oldest, I will be one of the very few people they have known every single day of their lives….until the day I’m gone. I just hope its a really long time before we ever have to count to only three.