Sunday, January 18, 2009


In my brain, that is, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I'm pretty sure that in every situation, there's more to it than meets the eye, and I will ferret it out.

Anyway, this situation at least does warrant a little personal conflict. I'm still trying to figure out how to post personal things here without trash-talking the participants. This one is especially tricky, as it has to do with my very own personal parents, both of whom are very much alive, and neither of whom know that I blog. I'm not worried about them stumbling across this, and it's not anything that ever was a secret, but I want to remain respectful. I also want to be honest to myself. Let me know how this comes across, OK?

My parents divorced when I was in eighth grade, after several difficult years. Shortly thereafter, my father married the woman who played no small role in the destruction of my family. Being a confused 13-year-old who was (and still is) by nature, a peace-maker, the only conclusion I could come to was to behave as if nothing at all was wrong (even though plenty was). I desperately wanted everyone to feel better, and somehow it was up to me. Instead of going through the usual difficult-teenager-angst-drama that could have happened, I slapped a smile on my face and marched forward, the perfect daughter who kept her head up high and made no trouble. I worked very hard at balancing the time I spent with my mom and the time I spent with my dad and his new ready-made family. I referred to her as my stepmom. I was a child expected to deal with this as a rational adult, and of course I rose to that expectation, because that's what I did in every aspect of my life. What I wanted and felt rarely entered into the equation; it was about how I could provide what others wanted and felt. I put up a good front, and most of my friends would be surprised to hear that I had any problems with this at all.

Fast forward several years. My stepsister was about to graduate from high school. (She's eleven years younger than me.) Almost to the day of her graduation, my dad's wife left him. Just like that. Ka-boom. No warning. Already had an apartment. Gone. Now, having known him for about 39 years, I realize that my dad is not the easiest person to live with. But this was a really low blow, particularly when he found out that she had set herself up with some *cough* outside comfort several months earlier. The irony of the situation was not lost on me.

It rang my chimes pretty good. My sister (almost three years older than me) had always maintained that as soon as our stepsister was taken care of (you know, got through school and braces and all the legal stuff), that she would bolt. Turned out my sister was pretty much right. She tried to maintain some positive contact with me, and I tried to stay neutral at first-mainly for the sake of my stepsister. Then my dad shared some information with me which knocked me out of neutrality, and for the first time in a long time, I chose a side. I chose my dad, and severed ties with her. I don't regret it. I have missed my stepsister, as she had grown up before my eyes, and then disappeared.

I'm from a small town with a healthy grapevine, so I got regular infusions of gossip...I mean, news from my dad and friends that live there still. So one day the news trickled down that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. While I would not wish such a thing on anyone, even someone who had a hand in turning my life upside-down, I was pretty nonplussed by the news. I almost felt like, "Of COURSE she did." This was a person who liked attention, and frankly, what a way to get it. I know that's unreasonable, but I also took it as a delayed reaction-the child-like anger I hadn't been able to feel almost twenty years earlier. I had reached the point where I couldn't fake it anymore. The cancer went into remission, things looked fairly positive. Then, about two years ago, my dad found out that it had metastasized, and invaded her brain. Again, I didn't give it much thought. They were able to beat it back until this fall. Her decline was swift, and on Friday, she passed away.

I cried briefly, feeling the confusion and hurt from so many years well up again, but it wasn't sadness. It's not grief over a loss. Yet the conflict: she was good to me. If you could block out the fact that she helped to destroy my family, she was good to me. She referred to me as her daughter, but didn't expect me to call her anything but her first name. Her parents welcomed me into their home, and were unfailingly kind. She drove me to some rehearsals, I tried out conversations I needed to have with my mom on her, and overall things could have been worse. So do I continue to let those things outweigh everything else that happened? It wasn't personal, after all...she didn't do anything to ME....right?

I decide no. She did do something to me. She wrecked my family and pretended it was OK. Things weren't worse because I sacrificed my true feelings to make this all work for everyone else. Dammit, I made it a lot easier for everyone at my own expense. With her death, many of the feelings that I squashed for so long have re-risen. I believe that the universe always gives us a choice: deal with it now, or deal with it later. I could not have dealt with this earlier. But now I have better tools, more options, and less of a need to please everyone who crosses my path. I am more likely to take care of myself first. I am much less likely to put up with charades for the sake of appearances. And now I can feel what I didn't before, acknowledge it, see how it has affected my life since, and heal it. I'm about to turn 39, and it's time to give the frightened 13-year-old some long-awaited consolation.

Do I still have things to work out with my parents? Absolutely. It's not all her fault. I see this less as a loss (for me...not for my stepsister) than as a balancing event. I gave up a hefty chunk of my childhood for her attempted happiness. It didn't work, and it wasn't fair of her to use my family like stepping stones on her path. It seems she had a hefty chunk of her adulthood taken away in return. My happiness is still my own responsibility, but the release of these emotions is part of the process. If something else could have happened to be the catalyst, I would have accepted that too. This is not a happy event. I'm sorry that my stepsister has lost her mother before she turned 30, before she could get married with her mother present. But if it had to happen this way, I will take the good that I can find in it. Otherwise, the whole situation is meaningless, and in my mind, having meaning leads to having hope. I can't live without either one.

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