I love the word “estranged.” Firstly, it’s an adjective, born of a verb. Secondly, it perfectly describes the feeling of being distant from someone with whom you have formerly been affectionately connected.
I have an estranged sister. That’s what I call her, and that’s what she is. She’s my only sibling, and we grew up in the same house with married parents. What’s more, we grew up in a house without exposure to much television. Imagine, if you can, instead of a childhood defined by Charlie’s Angels or Mork & Mindy or the Cosby Show; a childhood defined by imagining alternate realities, or rearing many litters of kittens, or traveling Europe, one remote village at a time. That’s the childhood I shared with my estranged sister.
And now, I face the day-to-day challenges of middle age: motherhood, aging parents, divorce, career changes, and existential crises—all as an only child. People who are born as an only child don’t understand the intricacies of sisterhood—the negotiated settlements over who plays Cinderella and who plays the evil stepmother, who gets the front end and who gets the rear end of the dog in the back seat of the family car, who is the prettiest, and who is the smartest.
We both wanted to be the smartest, because we imagined the other was the prettiest, in case you were curious.
This weekend, as my mother lies in the intensive care unit of the hospital, I am an only child. I give my mother a reassuring hug as she heads off to surgery, comb the hair from her forehead with my fingers as she lies unconscious on a ventilator, repeat the same conversation with her over and again as she exists in a post-surgical daze, encourage her to brush her teeth and spit into a cup so she can feel small comforts as she lies in a hospital bed attached to tubes and wires. All of this, I do alone.
Even with friends and cousins and aunts, those people are not my mother’s children. There is only one other person who shares the same feelings about the woman lying unconscious in the ICU.
And even though I send dutiful text and email updates to my sister, I think how much easier it would be had I been born an only child, with no childhood memories as evidence that there should be a sister by my side. There should be a sister who comes to take over from my shift, a sister who irritates me in the family lounge, a sister who remembers that I take my tea with milk AND sugar when she makes her fifteenth trip to the cafeteria because she is no good at sitting still in crisis situations.
I tell my own daughters, love each other well—there is no other person on earth who can relate to your existence the way your sister can. Treasure your brother, I tell my girls, as he is the only person who can see both of your points of view with equal measure. Stay close to your siblings, I tell them, for they are the only other people who know what it is to love your parents as fiercely as you do, and they are the only people who will ever understand the ways in which your parents disappoint you. And when I am gone, I tell them, your siblings are the only people who will want to talk about the memories of your childhood that define your existence.
I am an only child…by choices, not design.
Richmond, VA. Katarina Spears is a mother, bartender, and the author of three books for young adults. Her book characters are not granted siblings.