At times it’s easy to forget there are 10 years between our daughter and youngest son, especially when our daughter was younger and the two of them had heated squabbles over TV time. There were sweet moments as well: the times when our son played firefighter and his sister ran around the house pretending to be on fire. It was a morbid game, but they’d race with screaming giggles, which was a good sound to hear while I made dinner.
Sometimes a friend called during the firefighter game and she’d miraculously recover from the flames and disappear into her room, whispering into the phone while our son, wearing only a red fireman’s hat, banged on her door, shouting, “I want to pway!” (He hadn’t quite mastered his Ls.) I’d endeavor to distract him with puzzles, games or cookie building and he’d calm down eventually, but I was not the playmate he wanted in that moment.
The first time this happened, I was surprised by my reaction — a strong ache in my throat — but I had the same reaction every time and eventually I realized that as hard as it was to see my son hurting, the ache I felt was for my younger self because watching the scene was like watching my own memories.
I don’t have siblings in the traditional sense, but my Aunt R__was six years older than me (still is, although I haven’t seen her in years). She was the perfect playmate from the time I was 3, a sort of weekend sister. Hide and Seek, Slip and Slide, Pick-Up Sticks — I don’t remember ever tiring of her company. We could play all day and when we were tired and hungry, she was tall enough to reach Grandma’s hidden stash of Twinkies and Lucky Charms. Looking back I think, as the youngest of four sisters, she must have enjoyed the chance to be the oldest for a while. At night I slept in her bed and we took turns tickling each other’s backs until we fell asleep.
Then one day, after we’d played house for hours, Grandma and I dropped Aunt R__ off at her friend’s house for a sleepover. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time I recognized that she was going off to do older kid things, that I wasn’t welcome. Grandma and I watched from the car as Aunt R__ walked up her friend’s driveway with her overnight bag and I imagined that later I’d eat my Salisbury steak TV dinner with Grandma and watch “Dallas” while she rolled her hair in curlers, and I felt my first pangs of loneliness.
When I saw my son chasing after his sister, I felt that lonely frustration all over again.
As we grew older I became more of an annoyance than a playmate. I couldn’t sleep in Aunt R__’s bed anymore because I woke her up too early; I was rude to her boyfriends; I couldn’t keep a secret. I saw her less often. I was 14 the day she was married. I was a bridesmaid and as much as I wanted to be happy for her I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being left behind for good.
Strange that it should never occur to me that — is there even a phrase for it? Sibling loneliness? —would be one of the challenges of having children so many years apart, but my ignorance makes sense considering that I try not to think about Aunt R__ too much. She disappeared a long time ago, lives somewhere in her own woods, I’m told. I locked away all of the feelings I associated with her and they only floated to the surface in very bad dreams. My son became a little key, opening a door I had forgotten existed.
I try continually not to let my past influence the way I parent my children, but I’m sure every mindful parent knows the challenges there. I encouraged my daughter to play with her brother, but I didn’t force her. (OK, sometimes I included it as one of her chores if she seemed game; digging sand castles is more fun than washing dishes.) I reminded her again and again — and again — that before walking away from him, she might try finding other solo interests for him, give him a two-minute warning, at least. Some days that worked.
And then our daughter went off to college. I dreaded that day for myself, but also on our son’s behalf. I tried to keep in mind that most children leave home eventually and maybe it’s not easy for any sibling, no matter the age difference.
Now our daughter is back, looking for a job and taking one last class to finish her degree. Sometimes she joins us for board games; sometimes she plays piano instead.
Last night she and her brother stayed home while I taught a class. She ordered pizza for them and they baked banana nut bread together.
Our son is less lonely since she’s been home, not completely, but maybe being a bit lonely is OK, too.
I read somewhere that reality is what it is, but we each have a movie playing in our heads made up of past experiences, and we view reality through the screen of that movie. These days I’m working to shut down the projector.
Tricia Caspers is an award-winning writer. Follow her on Facebook at @PatriciaCaspersPoet.
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