A few days late, but this video was worth waiting for…
A few days late, but this video was worth waiting for…
In the autumnal aftermath of the dissolution of my first marriage, I took a job and a leap of faith across two states to begin a new life. Amidst my feelings of disappointment and failure were the seeds of possibility and anticipation as I resolutely vowed to rediscover myself. I had called upon several old colleagues to dig up whatever remnants of a professional past I might have had prior to my wedding and hoped at least one job opportunity would reveal itself. Several long distance interviews later, I secured a position in Connecticut, something I was sure would stick for a while. I had one small problem, in the form of my toddler son, who obviously required daily care. I worried about the expense of daycare and in a moment of desperation, I asked my younger sister Sarah to come live with me and watch Max throughout the fall and into the winter. I would pay her wages and provide her with room and board.
Although I tried to persuade myself that asking for Sarah’s help in this time of personal crisis was something anyone with family would do, I was not without reservations about it. Of my three younger sisters, Sarah was closest in age to me, but furthest apart in temperament and personality. A freelance journalist working on her master’s degree and still living at home with my mother and her husband, she was the eternal student, full of plans and prospects that rarely panned out. Incredibly intelligent, but sometimes lacking common sense; she had the characteristics of someone who might have been diagnosed with a form of Asberger’s. With the ability and ambition to have a conversation with anyone but in a way that may have alienated some, she had a somewhat tentative and halting way of speaking sometimes, as if gathering her thoughts before each statement. Sarah always seemed to be moving in slow motion, and my impatience and irritation with her dreaminess had created a void between us in recent years. I felt older and wiser than her in almost every way possible, and yet here I was, faced with the collapse of my own conclusions on how life should be lived, practically begging for her help. The irony was not lost on me, but with a genuine concern for my wellbeing and without as much as a finger wag, Sarah agreed to stay and care for her nephew.
I had rented a fairly large, cheap but somewhat decrepit apartment which would provide plenty of room for the three of us. Determined to cling to an altruistic motivation rather than a selfish one, I had convinced myself that I was also offering Sarah an opportunity to grow as a person. Living at home at the age of 29 was not healthy, I reasoned, and the somewhat claustrophobic house of my mother, her husband and their eight dogs certainly couldn’t allow Sarah the freedom to become a full-fledged adult. Living with me was one step closer to living by herself – a goal I felt was in her best interest and within her capacity once given the chance to get closer to it.
Sarah took her care-taking responsibilities to heart and provided my son with a loving and compassionate environment while I was at work. One and a half year old Max, having recently eased out of a phase during which he refused to leave my side, adapted remarkably well to my sister’s custody. The two took walks through the neighborhood while the weather remained warm enough and did crafts of various sorts that were hung carefully on the refrigerator door for my inspection when I returned home. Throughout a bout of even pickier eating than usual that so worried a local doctor’s assistant that she labeled Max ‘failing to thrive’, Sarah kept religiously meticulous notes on his diet and diapers for two weeks to provide evidence that genetics rather than malnutrition was the culprit for his tiny size.
As we settled into our routines, and I began to revel in my new-found independence, I found a confidante in Sarah, and began to remember what a selfless, loving person she was. Work gossip, family griping, even potential romantic interests – Sarah provided an open ear and a supportive sounding board for me. Not like some roommate, but like my sister, who always knew what I needed to hear, always took my side, and seemed more worried about my wellbeing than her own. A sister who seemed to thrive on my conversation. But, it was always about me. Whenever the exchange turned to her and my lofty thoughts for how she could and should improve her life, she carefully and graciously brought it back around to my issues, which I was usually happy to talk more about.
Eventually, I began to take advantage of Sarah’s generosity. Drunk on freedom (and Chardonnay), I went out at night on occasion returning home too tipsy to have driven and suffered Sarah’s anxious concern over my state. I dismissed her distress with the assurance of a teenager and briefly felt like I was the younger sister with Sarah scolding me like a mother hen while I laughed off her fears.
Regularly, our own mother would call to speak to Sarah after enduring an argument with her husband. The increasing frequency of their disagreements seemed directly related to Sarah’s absence in their home and she worried about the state of their marriage. “You are not their referee,” I reminded her, even as I grew gradually more dependent on Sarah’s role in my own household, but I could see Sarah’s concern. As winter approached, Sarah began to talk about her plans for going back to my mother’s house and once again I begged her to stay. In many ways, I had become as dependent on her and her support as I now realized my mother was. Sarah with her generous heart and anxious head, worrying about you so that you didn’t have to. Or perhaps so she didn’t worry about herself.
I thought if I could create a better motivation for her to stay, she would. I found her a freelance writing job locally, but she found reasons to decline it. She talked vaguely about professional commitments she had back in Pennsylvania, and eventually I stopped arguing. They were my arguments; for what I wanted for her, and I certainly couldn’t force her to listen. I found daycare for Max and she left after Christmas. Without the intimacy of our living arrangement, our interactions returned to what they had been – those of two sisters living very different lives, their connection increasingly growing more distant and faint.
When Sarah died suddenly in 2009, a storm of emotions and regrets consumed me that I still battle to this day. I judged myself as harshly as I had ever judged my sister. The one sweet note in the symphony of inner discord that I have suffered through has been the memory of that one autumn that I had a chance to spend with Sarah.
Back in my grunge days, when wide-lapelled polyester shirts made a brief resurgence in popularity, I found myself routinely scouring the racks of the Salvation Army to secure what, at the time, was the height of fashion. As I rummaged through the one dollar impulse bin near the register, I came across a t-shirt that made me pause. It was a red shirt with a black imprint of two Edwardian-era young people standing apart on two sides of a fence, the young woman looking longingly at the man, who was casting his eyes off in the opposite direction. The phrase beneath the picture, written in block lettering read ‘FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT’. As I held it up I noticed the print had been set on the shirt slightly askew, as if constructed in a slapdash manner by a scorned woman herself, hot tears in her eyes blurring her vision and preventing her from making out a straight line on which to place the design.
Of course I bought the shirt, both for its unusual design and for the fact that it was a dollar, and wore it for many years throughout my grungy/Goth twenties. Each time I put it on, I would examine the faces of the couple in the picture – simple black printed expressions with little detail, fading with each washing but still remarkably expressive about the lost love that at one time existed between them. Lovers once with open eager hearts, but now practically strangers – their hearts and minds covered with cold, hard shellac that had grown slowly and steadily during their relationship. I had heard the phrase too, used in some adult context that I can’t now recall, but it had meant nothing at the time for a young girl with ideas in her head about love that were drawn with straight but somewhat fuzzy lines.
In fact, I might have already thrown the shirt away by the time its concept became more familiar and contemptible to me. It lingered in the back of my mind as I began relationships, always with the thrill and novelty that only new love can provide, and eventually ended them – sometimes my idea, sometimes his, always with bitterness and anger and the seemingly never-ending examination of perceived personality flaws and despicable behaviors. How could I expect to find long-term happiness when it seemed impossible to quell this need to fulfill a fantasy that only seemed to be sustainable by the unknown ambiguity of initial liaisons? In other words, the more I knew about the real person, the more insecurities, imperfections, and idiosyncrasies that revealed themselves, the less interested I was in hanging around.
To be fair, I expected no less than perfection from myself as well, which added to my dilemma. The idea of someone growing tired of me terrified me and I struggled to transform my behaviors to suit my suitor at the time, sometimes to the point of alienating friends and family. Connecting with a significant other seemed paramount – nothing else mattered as much. My parents’ unhappy marriage and eventual divorce seemed to heighten my awareness of the importance of doing it right. But, my expectations of love were too high and impossible to meet and therefore…weren’t.
Eventually I decided that I could not have it all and attempted to separate fantasy from a reality that I hoped I could live with. Ironically, I think my first husband suffered from a similar ailment and our marriage was even more of a disillusion to him than to me in many ways. I had never imagined myself divorced (I suppose brides never do), but starting over gave me an opportunity to re-examine my life, now with a child, and force me to put fantasies aside for good. Or so I thought.
Reconnecting with my current husband, a childhood friend, was as close as I thought I could get to the vision in my head of the perfect mate. We shared a foundation of knowledge, culture and morality. He was handsome without being annoyingly so, educated and ambitious and seemed to become more physically attracted to me the longer we dated. I was confident I had found what I was searching for.
And if we had moved to a tropical island to spend our days lounging beachside and sipping Mai Tais, I’m sure I would have remained as rapturously in love as I was the first few years we were together.
But, we didn’t.
We combined our families of children and were determined to raise them as siblings despite visitation schedules and challenging exes. We had another child fairly quickly after we were married and began the long sleepless nights of feedings and diaper changes. We suffered financial setbacks and legal woes and argued about money and cleaned up vomit and poop and watched each other get sick and ooze with mucus, bruises and rashes. I spent too much money on frivolous purchases. He lost his temper too quickly. I grew discontent and struggled to find myself creatively. He wrestled with his love of travel and adventure and his responsibilities as a father and husband. In short, we are imperfect. There are days that we struggle through to make it to dinner and moments when we wonder why anyone would get married at all, but my definition of love has evolved and I am the better for it. I am a stronger, wiser and more self-aware person and my relationship with my husband has helped to define who I am today.
I still think the familiarity of a close relationship breeds a certain definition of contempt….sometimes, but it’s up to me to move past it. I could choose to live my life attempting to avoid that predicament, enjoying that first blush of lust, anticipation and excitement before it fades into the mundane and sometimes exasperating series of disagreements, divergences and dissents. But, what I would lose is much more important. The progressing and solidifying of another kind of relationship – one that allows you to release that breath that you have been holding for years, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The feeling of having a partner, an equal, someone who has seen you at your worst and doesn’t look away. You force yourself to tolerate someone sometimes because someone is forcing themselves to tolerate you. Not because they just want to tolerate you, but because they love you.