I Finally Reconciled With My Sister

My sister and I did not talk for months. And then we did. What happened in between taught me how to deal with grief.

Jan 23, 2014 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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My sister Amie, my mom Pat and me.

My sister and I have never been all that close.

She is the exact opposite of me. The anecdote I always tell is that when the two of us went to go see "E.T." as little kids in the movie theater with my father (I was 7, she was 10), as I sat next to her weeping, Amie turned to my dad at one point and said: "This is sad, huh?"

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My sister and me cozy with my dad Jerry and our cat.

My parents like to joke that when emotions were passed out, I got both the helpings of sensitivity.

I'm a drama queen. She is a stone wall.

I think we dealt with my dad's blindness and disfigurement and combat vet rage in different ways. I proudly aligned myself with the "other." My sister dealt with it by being tough as nails. When my dad tried to explain to her as a little girl that he couldn't smell (because his nose is constructed of hip bone after one of his more than 150 surgeries he's had after being shot twice in the face in Vietnam), Amie frustratedly took the rose she had picked for him to smell and thrust it toward him again.

"Well," she said, "try!"

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At home in San Diego with my sister, my dad and me.

My sister is awesome.

When I look back, the fight that led to us not speaking for months came to a head when I got the job at xoJane. It was my last night in San Diego in August 2012, and I went out to dinner with her three children. I don't remember exactly how it started but it turned into a long and unrelenting attack on me.

I wrote things for attention. I only cared about social media. I wasn't around enough. I only talked about myself.

Do I do these things sometimes? Sure. But that's also a fairly reductionist and cruel view of it, and she later apologized.

Still, when my mom and I drove back to her house that night, both of us were fairly stunned. It was my last night before flying to New York, I still had much packing to do, and I felt abandoned and cold -- nauseous.

Things were not quite the same between us since, and every time I talked to her or her family, I felt iced out. On my birthday -- this is last year's birthday, when I turned 37 -- for the first time in my life she didn't call me to wish me a happy birthday. That time was the lowest I've been in quite a while. I had ended a toxic romance with a man, had a fight with a friend, lost my place to live and felt cripplingly sad and at times, catatonic. I slept in the same clothes, mustering up all of my strength to try to get into Manhattan once in a while to go to a 12-step meeting to perhaps get a hug and feel some fleeting sense of human contact and care, no matter how brief.

But the other change that happens to me when I get very depressed is this:

When I get sad, I often turn it inward. I often cannot deal with the sadness -- the pain is just too unbearable. And I morph into a boiling incapacitating rage.

So angrily, I deleted my sister from Facebook. (Yeah, I did the same thing with my mom when we had a terrible fight. It's not something I'm proud of, but it happened, and there it is.) We sort of made up briefly after this, but not really, and things proceeded to get worse from there. Amie never answered the phone. She wouldn't take my calls. At a certain point, I realized that I couldn't win at making my sister like me. I knew that she probably still loved me, but there's a pretty substantial -- and heartbreaking -- difference between the two.

It was several months ago that I got the call from her. Her husband -- my brother-in-law Gary -- is the one who pushed her to finally reach out. She said she just wanted to talk.

"So you got a dog," Amie said. And then, like a rush of emotion flooding to my heart, she turned to her youngest daughter and said, "Did you know Aunt Mandy got a dog?"

It made tears well up in my eyes. In fact it does again just writing that memory down right now. Things were going to be OK again.

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Bangs and a headband for Amie. Black and white striped tights under jean shorts for me.

If there is one thing in my life I am hungry for more than anything else it is unconditional real and true authentic love. What I felt in that moment was the same love that I felt from my sister growing up.

The same sister who told me, "You're going to like college, Mandy. They will like it that you're smart."

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My sister taught me to swim in our backyard pool. She went on to place in the state on her high school swim team.

The same sister who when I was breaking down on her couch after I had ended a business relationship some years ago turned to me and said, "You're going out with us tonight." I shook my head and didn't say anything. When people care, if I am crying, sometimes the tears become uncontrollable. She texted me later that night as I sat with her girls watching the TV and said simply: "You are so talented."

The same sister who insisted that I come home to San Diego to spend time with her and her family after breaking up with the man who I wrote about in the dating column I had in the New York Post for several years and told me: "We love you." Then she turned to her girls and asked them the same, "Don't you love your Aunt Mandy?"

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During my get-over-a-breakup trip with my sister to the desert outside San Marcos, California in 2009.

The same sister who wrote me a letter when I was in the hospital at the age of 9 and said, "We miss you so much. You always come up with the best games to play."

The same sister who helped me practice once on the phone by playing an uber-bitch before I gave notice at a job to a boss who I knew was going to try to mess with my mind. (I seriously cannot recommend this exercise enough.)

The same sister who when I told her I was trying to fictionalize some of our youth in the book I am working on said to her two oldest daughters as they were doing the dishes, "Don't worry girls, when you grow up, you can just write a book about each other."

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Rocking out in our backyard. For once, Amie was taller than me.

The same sister who when I confessed to cashing out the $50 gift card I bought her youngest daughter for Christmas so I could afford to eat during the holidays this year (after a slew of unexpected dog expenses) said to me: "That's hilarious. The book I'm writing about you is going to be called 'Selling Children's Presents for Food.'"

The same sister who when I told her I was secretly worried about buying her daughter a new gift card because Amie might just spend it herself said, "Oh I wouldn't worry about that. She'll still get a gift. She'll get the $10 gift that I buy her when I spend the rest of the card."

That one still makes me laugh.

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Bedtime story with my mom and my sister.

After that last conversation we had, Amie did something very special, which was to tell me what my 9-year-old niece wanted more than anything in the world right this moment as a belated birthday and Christmas gift: the Dolphin Cruise Lego set. She even told me that if I went to Yoyo.com they were running some promotion where I could get 20% off my first order (this is not some weird advertorial for the site, although that would be pretty genius on my part of it was). As soon as I got my paycheck, I had this item on my handy new post-depression checklist and I bought it.

I sent the confirmation to Amie, who wrote hilariously of her daughter's excitement: "She is going to poop her pants!"

She makes me crack up in laughter about as much as my mom does. Say what you will about dysfunctional families, the kids do end up funny.

Since her daughter received the gift, Amie has called me a few times since, each time putting her daughter on the phone so she can tell me excitedly exactly how cool the new cruise ship is. "There is a whole dish set and there's a fireplace and there are several boys and girls and it's so cool, Aunt Mandy!"

I can't tell you how much this fills my heart.

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My sister visits me in college at Northwestern in the mid '90s.

I'm proud of many things in my life, but re-establishing this relationship gives me an endless source of good feeling. Maybe "proud" isn't even the right word. Maybe just a feeling of gratitude, really.

In a modern world crisscrossed with transactional relationships, the relationships with the people who have your heart are the ones that really mean anything at all to me anymore. Sure, I want to have professional success. But that's all pretty damn fleeting, depending on the ebb and flow of the day. The only thing that lasts is how much you love.

To answer the questions you may have in advance about this story: Yes, I emailed Amie this piece to see if it was OK before publishing. Yes, I recognize that a lot of the critiques that she made toward me during the fight we had before I left for New York have truth to them. Yes, I've worked toward and continue to work toward improving on them. Yes, we've both apologized to one another.

And yes, I think stress plus stress plus family often equates to fireworks, and that's exactly what happened in this situation.

I'm proud also that I did not crumble in the months when our relationship was nonexistent. When I really stopped to think about it, it devastated me. I remember going on a casual date with someone who I was pretty sure I wouldn't ever see again (I didn't), and this guy had a kid, and I asked him for advice on this incredibly intimate topic as I showed him pictures of my sister and her beautiful family.

"Just don't stop trying," he told me.

I didn't.

But I also did. In some ways, I would just try to turn it over to God. I used the one technique I know to work better than any others: I prayed for my sister's happiness and the happiness of her family. Because after a certain point of unreturned phone calls, that's all you can do. I believe in the power of prayer, but I would never be so deluded as to say that this works for other people.

For some, it's meditation or support groups or individual therapy or voodoo dolls or exercise. (My sister had me add after I read her this sentence, as she knows that I am a bit of a cloying self-help type: "I, for instance, like to burn Louise Hay books for firewood." So brutal. So funny.)

And for me, very often, my coping technique is prayer.

All I can say now is this.

I thank God for my sister.