Once, a reunion of our mother’s extended family was held not far from my home. My sister stopped by my house for the briefest of visits before moving on to spend the weekend with relatives we’d barely met.
I had love affairs. Her marriage endured. She made a highly successful career as the editor of a leading women’s magazine in Canada. Our father died; we saw each other briefly at the funeral. More and more, as Rona and I built our separate lives — in separate countries, even — we found our sense of ourselves at least in part by forging our independence from each other.
When you are no longer known as "the girls," comparisons can fall away at last. To my friends who knew me only in the years since leaving home, I was no longer "the flighty, impulsive sister"; she was no longer the melancholy and fearful one. We were simply Rona and Joyce, and as much as I missed a sister in my life — and not only a sister, but my sister — there was a relief in that.
A Summer of Loss
Of all the hopes I held for my own children’s lives, none was greater than this: that they would be, for each other, the kind of siblings my sister and I had never been. I gave birth to my second child when my daughter was four years old but never for a moment considered giving her the option of naming him. The morning after his birth, when our daughter came downstairs to find her newborn brother in our bed, she bent tenderly over his head and said, simply, "My dream came true."
Rona and I made our own families — flawed in all kinds of ways, but neither of us re-created the pattern of our parents that had set us on such a difficult course with each other. (My sister avoided the problem altogether by having one child.) I didn’t become, for Rona’s son, the kind of aunt I would have liked to be. She didn’t become that for my children either.
Then, 18 years ago, we were thrown together again, in the saddest way. Our strong, seemingly irrepressible mother (divorced from our father by then and happily remarried, having left New Hampshire for Toronto) was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given weeks to live. The moment I heard the diagnosis, I left the United States and moved to our mother’s house.
As always, Rona and I approached the same situation in radically different ways. I wanted to cook for our mother, race around fixing things, make her happy. My sister, plunged in grief, manifested it in her way, not mine, stopping by at the end of her workday for quiet talks.
Looking back at that time now, over the four months that were our mother’s last on Earth, I can recognize the signs of trouble.
Years before, on one of our rare visits, when I ended up feeling, as I always did, rejected by my sister, I had asked Rona if maybe she didn’t even love me.
"No, it’s not that," she’d said, slowly, as if actually considering this possibility before rejecting it. "It’s just that you . . . take up . . . so . . . much . . . space."
Now, as if someone had put on a rerun of a show you hated the first time around, I was at it again: invading my sister’s territory; crashing into her world, the place she had finally found to carve out her life, free from her infuriating little sister. We were 35 and 39 that summer, but we might as well have been five and nine.
From the moment I arrived in Toronto, I was impossibly domestic — cutting flowers, baking pies, messing up the kitchen. I was impetuous, imprudent — taking our mother on walks to the park, one of which resulted in her falling on the stairs. ("But she needs to see the flowers," I protested. "But you weren’t being safe," my sister responded. Not yelling, never yelling.)