First published in Good Housekeeping Magazine’s Blessings column. Later reprinted in the book Blessings: Reflections on Gratitude, Love, and What Makes us Happy. God Moves in a Mysterious Way
by Luanne Rice
I’m the oldest of three sisters, something that defines me as much as my name. “You’ll have many friends,” our mother used to tell me. “But you’ll only have two sisters.” I knew she said that to them, too. She didn’t want us to take each other for granted, but she was an only child and didn’t understand: life without them would be like life without air, water, or blood—things I wouldn’t last long without.
When we were young, my sisters and I shared a room. Sometimes after they fell asleep, I’d walk around the room touching the bedposts. Talisman, prayer, or just craziness, I’m not sure. I shared that room with them for eighteen years, until I went to college. My first nights away, I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t hear them breathing.
That doesn’t mean I was a perfect oldest sister. I raided their sweater drawers. My middle sister got a beautiful fair-isle sweater—sky blue with white and pale green around the neckline—for her sixteenth birthday—but I wore it without asking whenever I could. Also, I flirted with my youngest sister’s boyfriend, danced with him too long at a winter dance one time.
We were all two years apart in age, walked each other to and from school. The day I got my license, I taught them to drive. We could make each other laugh with one word or glance. When I saw my mother trying to balance the checkbook, fretting about making the mortgage payments, I vowed to protect my sisters from them; I remember feeling the weight on my shoulders, knowing that I wanted them to stay happy and innocent. I wanted our complicated family to be simple and predictable, so my sisters wouldn’t have to worry about anything.
Was that where it all started? Arrogance on my part, to think that they couldn’t handle life as it was, that I had to run interference for them? Or was I just a not-good-enough older sister, a bad example, selfish in sweaters and selfish in life?
As adults, I moved to a city, they stayed by the sea. I have cats and a career, they have beautiful children. They got married and built lives; I got married and divorced. Three times. I felt like the family embarrassment and failure.
When I look back now, I can’t even define the precise moment that we stopped speaking to each other. I know that it happened after our mother died, when we no longer had the glue of her long, terrible illness to hold us together.
At first we stopped getting together as often. The time between calls grew longer and longer. After a while, the calls stopped, and I remember a moment when it dawned on me—maybe the worst moment in my life—that they had decided to cut themselves off from me and my untoward life. Looking back now, I realize that my life was difficult for them to deal with, and they had to step back. And because I didn’t know how to stop them, I let them.
The silence was so terrible, even now it hurts to remember. Being alone is one thing—but after having grown up with such closeness, it was almost unbearable. I began to have holidays with friends—people I love a lot. But every Thanksgiving morning I’d feel bereft, wanting my sisters instead.
One day I couldn’t take it any more. Literally. I was in a rocky, abusive marriage—my last. It pushed me over the edge. An early winter night in 2002, I jumped into Long Island Sound with my computer. I ended up at McLean Hospital, frozen inside and out, swimming in grief.
I called my sisters.
They came to me. Not in their cars, not up the highway, but straight back into my life. They let me know they loved me. It took a little time, but we saw each other. We talked. They know me better than anyone. Our history is in our hearts, in our skin. Maybe that’s why our time apart was so excruciating—I felt I had been ripped in half. Coming back together has been the greatest blessing I can imagine, and it has shown me that with sisters, love means never having to say “I was a jerk.” It means forgiveness and never having to touch the bedpost to ensure that we’ll always have each other.