May 17, 2021 (611 words)
I started with two sisters, but lost one to melanoma in 1998. She was 34 at the time, the youngest of the litter, and our family’s glue. She was in charge of parties and reunions and such. The remaining five of us would be a closer-knit bunch if she were still here today.
There were ten years separating me and my baby sister, but we got along with each other from childhood, and related very easily as adults. My surviving sister, on the other hand, is only a year younger than I, and we’ve never agreed on anything. Over the years I have approached our intermittent encounters with trepidation. This sister could always be counted on to do or say something that would infuriate me, and leave me stewing for days afterwards.
(My father once confided how he saw this sister and I as very much alike. He suggested that was probably the reason I felt at loggerheads with her all the time. This was an interesting perspective I hadn’t considered until he mentioned it.)
Our clan recently assembled in Sedona, AZ, for the late-in-life, first-ever marriage of our youngest brother. (He will turn 60 in October, and met his love on-line five years ago.) It was a casual outdoor ceremony with a beautiful mountaintop view of the famous red hills. At the reception immediately following, something unexpected happened.
At one point I gathered my courage and approached my sister’s table, sat down of my own volition, and actually engaged her in conversation. Not much had changed – we were still disagreeing about everything, and she still displayed that unnerving tendency to get the last word in, no matter the topic. But I was granted some sort of grace that afternoon, allowing me to avoid my familiar pattern of contentiousness.
By maintaining my emotional equilibrium for a change, I was able to see my surviving sister for what she truly is, for what she has always been: a woman of great integrity who takes her work in medicine very seriously, and who tries to make whatever she is involved with better, whenever she can.
Here’s a few other adjectives that came to mind as we chatted that day: practical, unsentimental, and indominable.
Why wasn’t I able to embrace this sister’s essence before? Why have I spent so much time quibbling with and picking apart a few minor stylistic differences in how we each discern life’s grand design?
Developing perspective as time marches on is a healthy pastime. I often think of my late father in this regard, who had a knack for seeing things clearly. Though I didn’t always feel that way about him. As a young buck on the way up, I saw my father as not fulfilling his potential, not using his obvious intelligence to get ahead in the world. In some ways I thought of him back then as a fool and a failure.
Fortunately, by my late thirties I had come to my senses. Not only did I learn to appreciate all aspects of his worldview, I began to feel a deep sense of gratitude for the rich (non-material) legacy he was ready and willing to bequeath me. With my intellectual equilibrium thus properly restored, I was able to reap the benefits of his wit and wisdom over the last twenty years of his life. My father died eight years ago now, and I still haven’t really found anyone else to talk to since he passed.
To mourn the loss of one’s youth is a common affliction. But I’m finding it’s good to get older. I am glad to be exactly the age I am right now.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
May 17, 2021