“I didn’t even wish her happy new year”. I can’t tell you how many times in the days, weeks, months following Steph’s death I choked on these words on their way out because they were too big, too full of regret. I figured it had been two weeks since I talked to my sister in some form… a text, facebook message, a phone call. Anything that, more than the words themselves, said I’d thought of her. That something reminded me of her, that I missed her. Two weeks was a long time for us to go without any communication, even given the five-hour time difference and her busy work schedule and my busy new baby plus toddler schedule. And when I learned she was gone, those two weeks became a source of such guilt. I hadn’t had the chance to say I thought of her, to show I loved her, just one more time.
But the guilt didn’t stop there…
I left for college before Steph was in high school. While I was gone, she grew up. Each time I came home I marveled at my baby sister’s transformation from goofy, adorable tween to goofy, beautiful young lady. From a little sister wanting to emulate everything about her older sisters to a little sister forging her own way. Without any pressure from her family to be anyone other than herself, she became her own person. And her person just so happened to be very different than mine. There I was, a live-by-the-rules, follow directions, dress in all neutrals kind of girl. And there she was, free-spirited, wild, with not a single piece of plain, neutral colored clothing in her wardrobe. She wore more jewelry at single moment than I had worn my whole life. And I worried more in a day than she did in all of hers. It’s inevitable that we’d be different. That we’d have different interests, strengths, weaknesses. But that’s the beauty of sisters… love transcends these differences. It didn’t matter that we were in different stages of our lives, she in her carefree early twenties and me in the latter part of that decade. Me with two babies and she still a baby herself. I know that we loved each other, and I believe that she knew it too. But love hasn’t been enough to ward off regret or shield me from guilt.
Reflecting on these last few years, I see what could probably be considered a typical relationship between sisters. We had different priorities, different schedules. We played a lot of phone tag. But when we did catch up, there was no denying we were sisters. In giving advice, I didn’t always tell her what she wanted to hear, but I supported her nevertheless. There were lots of laughs, but also moments of contention. I was grateful to have someone to tell me to lighten up and I took the responsibility of telling her to buckle down. It all felt so normal. I embraced the good, and dismissed the bad as unavoidable rough patches in sisterly growth. Then, after she died, my perspective changed. Normalcy suddenly wasn’t good enough. The bad overshadowed the good and every imperfect interaction was magnified.
I was pained by the possibility of missed memories on account of the role I’d taken in our relationship. I had accepted and understood that I may not have been her top choice in company, and so I resigned myself to the sidelines. I was there if she needed me, but didn’t force her to share with me the side of herself she reserved for her friends. I suppose I was waiting for her to outgrow the insecurity that inevitably accompanies young adulthood, and was often only shown to her family. I wanted it to happen naturally, as it should, but knew she might need guidance along the way. And I knew that getting to fully experience her fun, bubbly personality would be the reward for my patience. I always looked forward to the day our age gap would be less significant, that she wouldn’t need me to love her so responsibly and I could love her more freely instead. I couldn’t have known that that day would never come, but it tortures me just the same.
Each instant of tough love I’ve given her brings me to tears… Were my concerns genuinely attributed to my love for her as I’d formerly reasoned or had I not been accepting enough? Was my concern received with love or dismissed as judgmental?
My reserve in our friendship puts a knot in my stomach… Had she appreciated the space to grow without my hovering or had she wanted me more present? Had she understood it was out of love or did she feel it was without it?
Selfishly I consider my own burdens in the wake of her loss… Was my being on the sidelines really of my own accord or had she put me there because I was too hard on her? In trying to protect her, did I drive her away? In my looking forward to our growing even closer together through the years, did I overlook and under-appreciate what we had in the present? Why didn’t I call her every time I thought of her? Even one more conversation to hold onto now would have been well worth the nine unanswered ones it would have taken to reach her.
So many questions, guilt residing in nearly every perceivable answer.
The thing about guilt is that it’s grounded in hypocrisy. You can say to someone else in your very position “you can’t feel guilty about that”. And you’ll mean it. You will believe with every ounce of your being that there is no place for harboring guilt. Yet, you’re ears will be deaf to you’re very own words, grounded in steadfast belief though they may be. In this way, guilt is a powerful and dangerous thing. It can devour you from the inside out and there isn’t an easy way to stop it. I’m not sure there is a way to stop it at all.
But there may be a way to overcome it…
A couple of weeks ago, as I was missing my sister, I scrolled through her Instagram. That’s when I fell upon one of her signature selfies, this one taken on New Years Eve. Below it was a little comment “Happy New Year Steph”. And it was from me.
I had wished her a “Happy New Year” after all. It’s something so small, but it’s strangely comforting. Something I had done broken through the clouds of things I hadn’t. With one little comment, she might have remembered that I love her. If but for an instant, she knew I cared. I’m not sure I will ever stop considering the things that I didn’t do or should have done differently. But maybe if I let myself breathe during these tiny reliefs, I can get through this.