Today is my sister’s birthday and I’m thinking about her. You see, I only have one sister, and she has lived far away from me for almost all of our adult lives. Considering she is turning 43 today, and I am her older sister by two years, we’ve lived far apart much longer than we were ever near one another. That said, I really dig her. When we do get the chance to spend time together, there is usually one epic blow-up (last year was about chicken – no you don’t want to know more than that), because while we have come to appreciate one another as adults, we were not that tight growing up, and in many ways are very different people.
As a young person, I was terribly shy and insecure. It was hard for me to approach new people and situations, and I envied that my sister did so with such ease. While I would write silly stories in my worn out notebooks, she could approach anyone and any situation with ease, and to be fair, helped me out a lot even when I was ungrateful. She was much more imaginative than me, always having “pretend” conversations with friends that no one else could see (one of the benefits/challenges of growing up on a farm perhaps). Frankly, I kind of thought she was a little weird for many years (Even now I don’t think I was wrong about that – though I can now grasp that I was just weird in my own way). We traveled in our own circles all through high school, in spite of the fact that we lived in a very small town, and didn’t really get to know one another until college.
We were jolted into young adulthood with some ugliness and abruptness – our parents divorced when I was 19 and Kristine was 17. Divorce is messy business – no matter how and when it happens. Our parents had married quite young, and in many ways, had grown up (and apart) alongside us. Suffice it to say that it was a terribly difficult time for all of us. While I completely broke down emotionally and made destructive decisions in my own life, my sister detached, threw herself into work (at DQ which was awesome as I ate to comfort myself), and would not let our parents troubles become her own. Years later, we were both able to talk about how living through that experience taught us both some valuable lessons and in many ways, brought us closer together. We even became college roommates for a time – living in the upstairs of a former church. It was kind of awesome and strange in the best of ways.
Following college, we both spent time on opposite coasts trying to figure out how to be young adults and what to do with our lives. My sister developed into a free-spirited Birkenstock wearing granola, while I continued to struggle with figuring out what the hell I was all about (I don’t think I’ve figured it out yet – I’m a slow learner). Yet, no matter where we were living, we were there for one another. Sure, we had our explosive arguments (par for the course), mostly because we’re both stubborn and strong women, but no matter what – we were there for one another. Through the muckiness of our 20’s, I knew my sister was in my corner (even though when I called her with a horrible head cold, she would suggest I take cat’s claw rather than Sudafed). Truly, she’s a little weird.
Soon enough she married Chuck, and I married Tom. I started having babies, and she (along with our cousin Dave) would call me on Friday nights from some bar in Chicago and laugh because Tom & I were home taking care of a newborn. Don’t you love family?
Then one day, my life changed in ways I could never have imagined, nor predicted. I remember driving home from the neuro-psych clinic with Elliott’s autism diagnosis in my hand, feeling numb and scared out of my mind. While he was the same little boy he had been the day before we held that diagnosis in our hands, I knew that my world was shifting in ways I could not yet understand, and I was shaken and sad. I called her, and 2 days later, she flew to MN and sat in my living room with me doing feldenkrais movements (one of her granola passions) with my sweet boy trying to teach him how to sit in something other than a “W” position. While neither of us knew exactly what to do, she knew I needed her, and I’ll never forget that as long as I live.
More babies came – Henry for me and Nikolas for her. Then came my Ada, and a short time later, her diagnosis with ASD. This time around was in many ways even harder for me. I started having panic attacks and having an ambulance show up at my house only to tell me that perhaps I needed mental health help. I was so ashamed and so deeply depressed, that I could not tell even my closest friends what was going on. But my sister knew, and she helped me collect myself and get back up on the horse. She’s a granola – but she’s also a bit of a tough ass. It’s what I needed, and I’m grateful.
I was so excited when she had her second son, Alexander (Xander for short and because Kris & Chuck never do anything in typical fashion), and Henry & I got to fly to Boston and spend time with them! It felt like such a peaceful and beautiful Zen moment for all of us – even when Nik would “hug” the baby.
Then, my Mom & her daughter-in-law made a visit to my sister’s family for the holidays last year. I picked them up from the airport, and something they said made me feel that yucky feeling in the pit of my stomach. They shared that Xander had a lot of trouble being around new people, and would not look at them. While lots of kids go through tough phases at 2, I can’t explain it, but I had a gut instinct that something may not be as it should be. That was a hard phone call to make – one I would never wish upon anyone. More than anything, I felt so distant – it would have been easier in person – but somehow I managed to convey my concerns without alienating her (she was so much better to me than I was to the early childhood educator who tried talking with me about Elliott). Thankfully, through my volunteer work at Autism Speaks, I’ve had the chance to meet some tremendously fabulous Autism Moms. I wrote a note explaining everything to an amazing ASD advocate (love you, Judith) who lived nearby my sister, and she was able to help Kris & Chuck have Xander evaluated at a wonderful assessment clinic. While it was horrible being ½ way across the country during all this, there is something to be said for the ASD community coming together to help one another that I find humbling.
And so, last year, my sister and I became ever more entwined when Xander was diagnosed with ASD. When she called to tell me, I made plans to visit right away. That trip was difficult – no matter what, my sister’s life was changing and while I would have done anything to take away even an ounce of their pain, acceptance of diagnosis is a journey and has to be individually traveled. That said, just as she had done years before, I was there for her, and will always remain firmly planted in her corner.
Today, my sister turns 43, and I am so proud and honored to share not only sisterhood, but also Autism Momhood with her. While we are in different places (both physically and with our ASD journey), and our kids each have their own unique strengths and challenges, we are united by a strong work ethic (for all his flaws, Grandpa did instill in us that it is important to wake early and put in an honest day’s work), amazing connections with other ASD families, and most of all, hope. Can’t wait to cheer all our kiddos on from the sidelines!
Happy Birthday, Sister! Love ya man.