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“We had been tight as thieves as children, but . . . I sensed us settling into the attenuated relations of adult siblings, a new formal distance, always slightly abashed, for there seems no clear way, in adult life, to do justice to the intimacy of childhood.”  –Zadie Smith

Rebecca

I thought about this a couple of weeks ago when I saw my younger siblings over dinner. It had been two and half years since I’d seen Michael, and I couldn’t help but think about how I used to eat every single meal—often in my underwear—with this man across the table from me. We used to sleep together and bathe together. We were with each other every single day for years and years. And yet, as adults, we’ve resigned ourselves to half a dozen phone conversations a year, maybe one holiday, and the occasional text message. 

Smith goes on: “I remember being scandalized, as a child, at how rarely our parents spoke to their siblings. How was it possible? How did it happen? Then it happens to you.”

Which isn’t to say that the emotion and the love and fondness are not still there, but there is a new formality to the entire relationship that is hard to understand in light of that old familiarity. Like the letter I got from Michael six months into his mission. In the post-script he apologized for a fight we’d had just before he left. When I read his note, my first instinct was to comment to Levi about how well he was growing up (as if I had continued to age but he had somehow remained seven, as younger siblings tend to do).  Then I tried to rush past the apology, unwilling to admit that Michael and I had reached a point where we actually had to say sorry, let alone a point where we had to remember—for six months at a time—that we had said something unkind. As children we simply screamed the most hurtful thing that came to mind and then forgot about it altogether.

Michael might as well have said,  “Rebecca, we are no longer children, capable of forgiving without deliberation and forgetting just as readily.  Still, you are my sister and I’d like to make that work, so I’m sorry about our last fight.” It’s all a little bit sad, like growing up makes us worse at being brothers and sisters. A friend, talking about her older sister, said it this way:

“I was thinking about her and how much I don’t like what she’s done these last couple of years. Whenever I see her I can almost feel her sadness or loneliness or whatever it is. It’s like I can literally feel the secrets that she’s holding. I don’t like it. As teenagers or children we would have clumsily worked it out, but as adults I just ignore her and hope she gets it together.”

And yet, growing up can’t dissolve it entirely. I admit to smiling when I read that, because even though their relationship isn’t where she might like, I think my friend really does feel her sister’s loneliness in a way that only a sister could. Underneath it all, the old intimacy is still there.

Precisely why, when things are really hard, I’ll solicit my siblings first. They’re the ones I want praying for me. We’re still siblings, after all. We’re made of the same stuff. I can’t pretend that underneath our adult lives, with jobs and spouses and children of own, when we see each other, there isn’t the sound of our inner childs whispering into the dark,

“Are you awake?”

“Yeah. Are you?”

“Want to sneak down to the kitchen?” 

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