An Ode to My Siblings
A few weeks ago, I had to give a speech on “what makes the perfect family” in my German class. What I said, or at least meant to say, was that there are many different kinds of families, and as long as the families are full of love, it does not matter if there are one, two or three Papas or Mamas; it does not matter if there are no Kinder or many Kinder; and that sometimes “family” are one’s close Freunden and Freundinnen.
It is an easy statement for me to make because people have made me feel like a part of their family my whole life. My friends in college shared responsibilities, late nights, fights and bathrooms like the houseful of teenagers we were. My aunt, uncle and cousin graciously let me crash with them when I moved to Colorado, and later dear friends opened their apartment to me when I was looking for work in San Francisco. My husband’s family has embraced me as one of their own, as have many friends (and their parents) through the years.
No family, though, has imprinted itself on who I am today like my (first? birth? first immediate? what does one call the family one is born into and grows up in?) family. The biggest part of that, in terms of sheer numbers, are my siblings. I am not a fan of fake holidays, but an email from a random florist alerted me to the fact that International Siblings Day is today. In lieu of flowers, I will celebrate my siblings with flowery prose — it lasts longer, anyway.
I am the oldest of four, two girls and two boys. It is most assuredly a sign of our ages that my mother used to say, “I had my babysitters first.” Babysitting — or as my parents called it, “responsibility” — was my first job, and I was alternately great and horrible at it. My youngest brother is almost nine years younger than I am; I had my first taste of control and power when we would be playing and I would suddenly scare him to the point of crying, at which point I would swoop in and comfort him. He says it has scarred him for life, but I know he would not say that if he thought I took that seriously.
During a party after my college graduation, one of my friends said to me, you and your siblings are an illustration of genetics: None of you really look alike, but line you all up and you can tell you are related. Our outward appearances reflect our characters: None of us are exactly alike, but between our shared experiences and our shared genetics, we are more alike than we might always recognize.
My sister and I are two years apart, and I always thought she should have been the older sister. I was scared of sleeping, and used to beg to sleep in her bedroom — and most nights, I did. She was, and is, fearless, and I admire her confidence in speaking her mind and confronting authority. At one point, I made a bet with her that if she qualified for the Boston Marathon I would run it with her the following year; she smashed the qualifying time, and I foolishly tried to keep up with her (it did not work). Despite her running speed, she walks through airports at a snail’s pace; I do not know how someone who can run so fast can walk so slowly. One of the highlights of my life was when we were young adults and she decided to go to law school in the Bay Area, where I was living, and we were able to experience more of each other’s lives.
My middle brother came along when I was 5½, because half years matters when one is five. He has been sweet and accident prone from the beginning; I do not think he safely navigated a piece of furniture, cracker tin or diving board in his early years. He has always been the most curious person I know. As a child, he would pepper my father, mostly, with endless questions about impossible baseball scenarios; as an adult, he is an insatiable reader and collector of knowledge, facts and opinions. Somewhere in his early 20s, he shifted from being the kind of person who talked about doing things to the kind of person who did things. Around this time, he had a goal to complete an Ironman Triathlon; one of the highlights of my life is the 11 hours and 38 minutes I spent in Arizona cheering him on as he swam, biked and ran his way to a phenomenal finish.
I treated my youngest brother like he was my very own baby, because of course at 8¾ one is able to care for a baby. I believed I was more his caregiver than my parents, and generously, they let me believe this. This bond helped me build my self-confidence and kept me humble long after he no longer “needed” my “parenting.” I left home when he was 8, and had to challenge him to be a better phone conversationalist. This meant he asked me lots of questions, which made me feel like my life was fascinating and important. He was impressed that I had my own computer and phone at work, but less impressed by my title — how could I be a (product) manager if I were not managing any people? One of the highlights of my life is the year we were both living in New York and would meet for breakfast every weekend, giving us the chance to know each other as adults.
Today, we all have our own families, all shaped differently, but our sibling bonds remain. While we each have our separate adult relationships, sometimes when we are all together we retreat into the roles we played as children and cacophony breaks out. I am forever grateful for the opportunity I have had to be their big sister, for their support across town or across time zones, and for their ability to always keep me humble. I am honored to be considered in such fine company, and lucky to have been born into it. I am also conscious that we might not always see each other or see eye-to-eye, but there will come a time when we are no longer here, so I will celebrate the moments and relationships we have today, imperfections and all.