“Us Two:” Thoughts On Having, Losing, and Raising Siblings

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Disclaimer: I didn’t write this post to say that having two kids is better than having one, or anything else judgmental. Families of all sizes are beautiful. This is just what my family looks like.

For the past two years since my second child was born, I have been asking more experienced parents of siblings, “when does it pay off?” Like most parenting questions, I received a slightly different answer from everyone I asked. While I’d been certain of wanting another child, in the beginning it was hard. Naively, I thought “how could adding another be that difficult when I already have one?” The truth is that some things were easier (more confidence in my parenting abilities, less agonizing over every stage and decision) and other things were harder (our child-related spending increased, it was harder to find little breaks in the day, I went back to work sooner than with my first). Also, I’d placed unfair hope on my first child immediately taking to her baby brother. The truth is that a toddler might not be interested in caring for or entertaining a baby and that’s okay.

Now, as my youngest’s second birthday approaches, life with two has gotten easier and more rewarding. They play together more, invent imaginary worlds together, and everything his sister does, my son wants to do, too, in the sweetest way. As I enjoy this stage of life, I also find comfort for the loss of my own younger brother. This year was the first #siblingday I was able to enjoy on social media without feeling an ache in my stomach. Watching my own children play together has given me fresh insights on the sibling relationship, helping me relive memories of early childhood with my brother. Like my two, Rob and I were always together. He was an agreeable partner in all of my games and inventions. From playing school together to pretending to cross a hot lava pit on our swing set, my brother was my first best friend.

Of course, I viewed our relationship from the perspective of the firstborn, who loved her brother but also wished for a sister and, remembering a time before parental attention and resources had to be split, may have sometimes wanted to be an only child. Now, through my son, I see what it means to be the second-born, whose older sibling occupies a godlike position in the universe. The second child has never known life without his older sister. He has loved her from the beginning and she has always been a role model. He covets her attention as much as that of his parents. Everywhere my daughter goes, my son goes, too. Recently we were walking through the yard and I couldn’t see him behind me. I called his name only to discover he was right behind his sister–of course. Everything she does, he does; everything she has, he says, “I too, I too.” When she disappears from the room he looks around, plaintively calling her name.

I always knew my brother loved me, but now I see it and I am reminded of the A.A. Milne poem, “Us Two:”

Wherever I am, there’s always Pooh,
There’s always Pooh and Me.
Whatever I do, he wants to do,
“Where are you going today?” says Pooh …
“Well, that’s very odd ‘cos I was too.
Let’s go together,” says Pooh, says he.
“Let’s go together,” says Pooh.
“What’s twice eleven?” I said to Pooh,
(“Twice what?” said Pooh to Me.)
“I think it ought to be twenty two.”
“Just what I think myself,” said Pooh.
“It wasn’t an easy sum to do,
But that’s what it is,” said Pooh, said he.
“That’s what it is,” said Pooh.

“Let’s look for dragons,” I said to Pooh.
“Yes, let’s,” said Pooh to Me.
We crossed the river and found a few …
“Yes, those are dragons all right,” said Pooh.
“As soon as I saw their beaks I knew.
That’s what they are,” said Pooh, said he.
“That’s what they are,” said Pooh.

“Let’s frighten the dragons,” I said to Pooh.
“That’s right,” said Pooh to Me.
“I’m not afraid,” I said to Pooh,
And I held his paw and I shouted “Shoo!
Silly old dragons!” … and off they flew.
“I wasn’t afraid,” said Pooh, said he,
“I’m never afraid with you.”

So wherever I am, there’s always Pooh,
There’s always Pooh and Me.
“What would I do?” I said to Pooh,
“If it wasn’t for you,” and Pooh said … “True,
It isn’t much fun for One, but Two
Can stick together,” says Pooh, says he.
“That’s how it is,” says Pooh.

Why self-care is my word of the year

As an avid podcast listener, I noticed an early-January trend among the episodes of various shows I subscribe to. Instead of setting traditional new year’s resolutions, many people were discussing their word of the year. At first it all sounded like baloney to me. How could I just pick one word? Both my real to-do list as well as my aspirational one were perpetually full. I didn’t think one word could help me accomplish all that I wanted to in 2018.

But then I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron. I’d heard of the concept before and vaguely identified with it–after all, I’d always been more sensitive than most to external stimuli as well as my inner world. Reading the full book, though, was transformational. While most of what she wrote was familiar to me from my own experiences, her framing of it was new. Instead of apologizing or feeling guilty and flawed, or trying to compensate for  for our trait, Dr. Aron (an HSP herself) encourages HSPs to embrace their true nature and find the positive in it. She also emphasizes that it’s okay to take care of yourself–more than okay, it’s vital to happy and healthy functioning.

It’s hard for me to express how much this positive re-framing has changed my outlook. For the past few years I’ve developed a hobby of reading self-improvement books, productivity blogs, and the like. Hitting the books is my go-to method of problem solving, so I thought I could read away the aspects of myself I found defective in comparisons against others. Get organized, wake up before the birds, work after my kids go to bed, juggle more things than I can count on one hand without dropping anything. I wanted to be the sort of “Type A” person that is often the most visibly successful in American society. Never mind that I’m basically the opposite of Type A.

Now I think of myself as “Type HSP” and I’m ready to accept myself, flaws and all. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop striving to improve, but I’ve finally, thankfully, given up on the idea that I can be a different person. Once I realized this, it became clear that self-care would be my word of the year. Now that I examine problems and situations, and base my decision-making from the perspective of caring for myself, I feel truly energized, productive, and generous toward others. I’ve long heard people say that self-care isn’t selfish but now I see that truth in my own life. I’m a better parent, spouse, daughter, teacher, friend, and neighbor when I take the time to nurture myself.

Here’s a brief list of what self-care looks like for me right now. I’m sure it will fluctuate with the seasons and passage of time. How do you practice self-care?

  • Drink a glass of water before my morning cup of coffee.
  • Make time to exercise most days.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Limit my media consumption to a once-a-day news briefing. Read articles with intention, not for distraction. Mostly read books.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Ask for time alone when I need it.
  • Schedule time with friends.
  • Leave my phone in the cabinet when I get home in the afternoon/evening.
  • Be the parent I am, and do the activities I enjoy with my kids.

The Year of Exceptional Changes

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A writer’s brain looks for meaning.

In the angle at which a bare branch grazes winter’s sky. In the gesticulations of two women catching up over coffee. In moments extraordinary or mundane, the writer digs for answers. And where meaning can’t be found the writer superimposes it with metaphor.

But what of events that defy meaning and budge not an inch to metaphor? What of questions that don’t have answers?

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my brother Rob’s death. His doctors never knew the origin or the cause of his cancer, nor did they really know how to treat it. In our competitive and success-obsessed culture, cancer is supposed to mean battle and rebirth. It’s supposed to end with a ribbon and the well-earned wisdom of surviving. But sometimes cancer just means death.

Long before he was diagnosed, Rob had proven himself a fighter and a survivor. He was quiet, more apt to listen to others’ problems than unload his own, but he had plenty of wisdom to share if you were lucky enough to get it out of him. He noticed the lump on his neck in the spring, when the promise of nature mirrored the promise of his own life. A top score on the GMAT. A niece he would teach tennis to. The perfect girlfriend about to walk into his life.

This is where I come to the questions. Why Rob? Why then?

There are no answers but still I look for meaning. It’s a habit too ingrained to quit.

First, the facts: My daughter was born in October. Six weeks later I moved from Philadelphia to a small town in North Carolina. A week after that my brother went into the hospital and died six weeks later. Back and forth I travelled with an infant, by car, train and plane. In May my husband applied for a job back in Philadelphia and in August he was offered the job. We moved in with my parents until our house, which had been rented out, was free again. I returned to teaching, my daughter turned one, and we experienced the first holiday season without Rob. Now we are about to move back into our Philly house and it is the anniversary of his death.

It was a year of sorrow and of joy, a year in which one family member was lost too soon and a new one was born. In short, it was a year of exceptional changes.

Here is the meaning: I couldn’t have made it through without family and friends. To quote an Ani DiFranco song, “I owe my life to the people that I love.” Friends new and old, family close and distant; so many people brought food, listened, visited, called, and helped that I continue to be humbled by the love and support my parents and I received before and after Rob’s death. Throughout this crazy year I never had to stand alone, not in my grief, not in my fumbling to become a good mother, not in moving, not in my petty complaints or my moments of elation.

And in all of these moments Rob stands with me, too. When I enjoy delicious food, when I try to be a good friend, when I admire my muscles after a workout. Being his sister continues to inform my life. And I am compelled to write about his, to conjure him and make meaning from my brother, who fought and survived and fought again, who never complained about the crappy hand he’d been dealt, whose last words were, “I love you guys.”

The Empty Seat at the Table

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

Rob and I at my baby shower, September 2013.

This Thursday my family will spend our first Thanksgiving without my brother Robert, who passed away in January from melanoma. Many other grieving families will face the same specter: the empty seat at the table. So how can we balance the grief we still feel with the feelings of gratitude and joy Thanksgiving invites?

Celebrate the things that bring you joy in your daily life.

Holidays are notorious for making people feel pressured to be happy and have fun while doing unusual amounts of shopping, eating, cleaning, cooking, and socializing. Give yourself permission to step off the holiday rat wheel and you’ll have space to honor your loss while still celebrating simple pleasures. My mom decided not to cook and host the Thanksgiving meal this year. Now instead of stressing out over cleaning the house and cooking, my mom can visit friends, play with her granddaughter, and slow down the usual pace of her life in the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Last year my daughter was born, the first grandchild in the family. She’s brought us boundless joy, and has been a welcome light in the darkness of Rob’s illness and death. I’m not sure she’s old enough to “get” Thanksgiving yet, but she’ll no doubt make us smile on Thursday just as she does every day.

Instead of expecting yourself or your grieving loved ones to muster over-the-top holiday joy, turn to the things that make you happy in your regular life. Eat your favorite foods on Thanksgiving instead of the traditional foods that many people don’t even care for. Watch football if that makes you happy. Or go for a walk. Curl up with a good book. End the day with a hot bath. Do whatever relaxes and nurtures you. Skip the malls and the websites. Curl up with loved ones and appreciate a day off from work, a day to rest and enjoy the company of family and friends.

Create new traditions.

With my mom off-duty, we planned to go to a restaurant instead. We made reservations at one of our favorite places and looked forward to the treat of a delicious meal without prep or clean-up. But an invitation from a family friend was even more appealing, so we will go to their house on Thursday.

If you’re dreading the prospect of sitting down at a familiar table without a beloved familiar face, consider changing the scenery entirely. Go to a restaurant, ask a different family member to host, or see if a friend will have you over. Make new traditions at a new table and eliminate value judgments–different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.

Change won’t eliminate your grief but may ease it. However you spend the holiday, find a meaningful way to honor your loved one.

I’m grateful that Rob was in my life.

This year I’ve decided to honor my brother’s memory by focusing my gratitude on having him in my life. Rob was a wonderful companion to share childhood with. He looked out for me. As an adult, he inspired me with his many achievements and the quiet determination with which he overcame major obstacles. We bonded over my pregnancy, as Rob looked forward to being an uncle and teaching his niece how to play tennis. Throughout his illness and treatments, Rob never complained of pain. Now when I think of him I’m inspired to work harder, follow my dreams, treat others with love and compassion, and appreciate this life I’ve been given.