“I am so excited for you. But your sister is having a rough time right now, so we probably shouldn’t make a big deal of this.”
For as long as I can remember, I have done things first. I am the oldest of two kids, and the oldest grandchild on both sides of the family. For my first three years, I was the only kid around. I went to prom first. My high school graduation was first. I received two college degrees first. In six months, I will walk down the aisle first.
And with each of those celebrations and happy moments, my family has met me with joy. Hushed, muted joy. And a reminder to not make my sister feel overshadowed. Not to “make the celebration about me.”
It is always something. A crappy job. A lack of life direction. A bad breakup. A crappy apartment. A fight with a friend. She has her high points too, but they seem to come few and far between the low ones. Which are never a true crisis, but they feel like one to her. From the outside, it feels like she lives in a constant state of misery. She talks a lot about the things she is doing to actively be more happy—counseling, yoga, self-help books, surrounding herself with positive people. But it’s always something. And these life crises always happen to coincide with my happy moments. And they suck the life out of all of us.
The year that I graduated college was the same year she graduated high school. She had been waitlisted by the college that I was attending. My mom called me the night before and told me to make sure that I didn’t make the day all about me, especially with how sensitive things were at the moment. Don’t talk too much about your grad school plans. We are only inviting Grandma, not the extended family, so that your sister’s high school graduation party can feel like the big deal later this month. “Sure Mom, no problem.”
My sister didn’t attend my graduation from my master’s program. She chose to stay home and wallow instead. She had recently made the decision to transfer colleges and move home to live with my mom. I know it was a rough time. And I tried to understand that celebrating someone else was just too hard. My mom drove the six hours to my college town and promised that we would have some time to spend together—I think she was excited to get away from the emotional overload. The day of my graduation, my sister called to tell her that she had gotten into a fender bender at the grocery store parking lot. She begged my mother to come home because she was overwhelmed by having to call the insurance company by herself. “You understand if I have to leave a bit early, right? She’s just at such a low point right now.” “Sure Mom, no problem.”
We got engaged last spring, around the same time that my sister chose to leave her low-salary, miserable job. It was a job that she hated from day one, but trudged through, complaining to us non-stop, but refusing to quit before her contract was up. When they asked her to stay for a second year, she knew that she needed something more long-term, where she would be making more money and have better benefits. It seemed like the best decision for her. She said quit, but had nothing else lined up. She moved home again for the third time, with limited job prospects. We all became consumed with her job search and anything we could do to help her find something. My partner and I respected the fact that she was “not in a good place” again, and kept the celebration of our engagement low-key. No engagement party. Not even a celebratory dinner with family. Nothing to point out that our lives were at an upswing, and she seemed to be in yet another downward spiral.
I asked her to be part of the wedding because I never would have considered not including her. But I knew her involvement would be limited. I set the bar very low. Almost no expectations. “Just show up and wear a black dress.” I wanted it to be as easy as possible for her. She needed to be able to focus on her own life, not me. I offered to pay for her dress, since I knew she didn’t have any money. She could pick whatever she wanted—I wanted her to be comfortable and happy. I told her not to worry about a bachelorette party or bridal shower. “I don’t like being the center of attention, and who needs those things anyway? Not me.” My friends pushed back on this, encouraging me to do something small but still a celebration of me. But I knew I couldn’t ask her to take this on—she couldn’t afford it, and she’d complain the whole time and make it about her. And I would feel bad for wanting something to be about me. Even just this one time. With no expectations, I would be protected from her letting me down.
She seemed excited for me to try on dresses. Rather than heading to a store and making a big production, I did it at home with a few that I bought off the internet. No fuss or spectacle. With just my mom and sister. But then she rushed me that afternoon because she had made plans to have a picnic with her friends, and was already late to meet them. How long did I think this would take? Could we go a bit faster? When I had picked one of the dresses, she said “Great, so I can go now? It’s been fun. You’re getting married!” in a false sing-songy voice, and flew out the door.
My partner finally called me out. “How long are we going to wait for her to stop being miserable? Because I think that’s just who she is. She’s never got to be able to focus on anyone other than herself and her own unhappiness. You give her too much of yourself, hoping that you will eventually get something in return that she is not capable of giving.”
I sobbed. And I wanted it to be not true. Because I truly want an adult relationship with her—a friendship, even. Based on mutual respect. But perhaps this was how we had been conditioned. Our roles reinforced by years of being told by my mother to contain my happiness. To celebrate behind closed doors. To avoid being the center of attention. And to focus all emotional energy on her happiness instead. Families are flawed, huh?
As our wedding approaches, I can’t help but question if she will truly be standing by my side. I know she will physically be there. But will she be present? Will she allow herself to be happy for us? Or will she make the day about her?
She has a new job now. And a new apartment (although a crappy one again). She genuinely seems closer to being happy. But six months is a long time away. And I just wonder how long it will last this time.
Photo by Gabriel Harber