An Open Letter to My Sister


I’m posting this letter on my blog (which you don’t know exists) instead of sending it to you.  Here’s why: 

  1. No good can come from confronting you with the consequences of your choices and actions.  You have rationalized all of your actions, and you place the blame squarely on others (or more specifically, on me).  No matter how articulate I may be, my words will only inspire hostility.  If I can’t tell these words to you directly, at least I can launch them into the universe.
  2. Today is the second anniversary of the day we learned of our mother’s death.  That event set in motion all the discord and animosity between us.  I want to get this out of my head and have it done.
  3. It’s possible that you’ll be at Passover in California this year.  I’ve thought a good deal about how I will comport myself if you show up.  No matter how you act, I’ve worked out my messaging and tone.

Here we go.

Dear Sis,

We got a raw deal in the maternal department.  Our mother suffered Borderline Personality Disorder, and that caused both of us a great deal of difficulty. I’ve written a whole book on my reasoning about why you ended up with Lupus and PTSD, when I walked away with a few spots of gross skin and a troublesome relationship with buttercream frosting.  If I could reverse things and help you be at peace with our lot, I certainly would.

We were very close in our adult years.  We talked on the phone for hours every week.  I folded about 1,700 cranes for your wedding.  We shared everything that happened in our lives.  When you were really sick, I made the 12-hour flight to be with you and hopefully lift your spirits.  I made the same trip months later, because you couldn’t yet travel to Passover with the family.  I went into debt to do this, which was my choice.  Before your wedding, I changed my ticket (incurring more debt) to help you deal with our mother and her shenanigans.  I stage managed your wedding and did my best to decrease any discord that could cause you physical or emotional harm.  At the end of the trip, we realized that there was a problem with my ticket home, and I had to use 50,000 frequent flyer miles to correct it.  Dad promised to give me those miles, because the error happened when he was setting things up.

Two years ago, our mother’s enabler of choice called me and told me she had found our mother’s body.  With Lupus and PTSD, it would be a bad idea for you to be anywhere near our mother’s horde. You knew that, and the plan was for me to get to our home state first to arrange the cremation, figure out how to proceed with the house, get a sense of the fiscal situation, and start the legal process.  You’d follow a few days later to arrange the memorial and support me.  I called our father and asked him to give you the 50,000 frequent flyer miles he promised me so you could get here.  I started making arrangements, and made my way to our home state with a friend.  On my first day, I arranged the cremation, reserved the club house at the condo complex for the memorial, and got our mother’s keys at the police station.  We touched base after midnight that night, and I gave you updates on where we were and how things were going.  I had slept very little in 3 days, and I was exhausted.  I was worried, because I’d be meeting 1-800-Got Junk? (I love those guys) at our mother’s house the next morning, and I wasn’t sure what horrors I’d encounter there.  While we were on the phone, your responses started to stray from my statements.  I could tell you were taking things out of context, but I couldn’t get you back on track.

You started talking about going to the house.  I shared that it wasn’t a great idea to go to the house, because you had no immune system and the authorities had been on the brink of condemning it only a few months before.  It wasn’t safe.  You took umbrage to this and started talking as if I didn’t want you there, and there were no words that could convince you otherwise.  We agreed to touch base the next morning, and not to make any decisions until then, and then we hung up.  Moments later, your husband sent me a text that read, “Shame on u 4 making ### feel unwanted.  Not ur brother anymore.”  When I tried to reach out and figure out what this meant, neither of you responded.  I called the cousins in hysterics.  They couldn’t get you on the phone, either.  I went to bed for a few hours, still hiccupping from all the sobbing.

The next morning, I entered the house for the first time in two decades.  The horde was like the show on TV.  It was horrible.  You sent me a text saying you were thinking of me, and it confused me.  If you were thinking of me, why wouldn’t you answer my calls or fix the miscommunication from the night before?  A bit later, Dad texted me with a cryptic question, “### no go?”  I responded that I could only do one really hard thing at a time, and that had to be the house.  I took a break for lunch, and at that point I read the email you sent to Dad (and not me).  This forwarded email thanked him for the miles and said you wouldn’t be going to our home state after all.  You ditched me, and you didn’t even think to let me know.

Bedroom After Bed Removal

Over the next days I had to get your signature and notarized copies of documents so I could open the estate and get into the safe deposit box.  I had to get Dad to call you, because you were waffling at on these tasks.  The cousins came out to help me.  Mike came out. Amy came out.  They kept me afloat, reminded me to eat, and were my lifeline.  You made things more difficult for me at a truly challenging moment.  I couldn’t mention your name without breaking into tears.  In addition to the physical, fiscal, and legal arrangements, I also planned and carried out the memorial.  You lived with her longer than I did, so naturally everyone asked where you were and why you weren’t there.  I couldn’t say you had an uncomfortable miscommunication that could be easily fixed, but you chose to stick me with all the work instead of fixing it, so I just said, “You’d have to ask her.” 

Our mother’s death didn’t affect me terribly.  She was awful to me in life, and I mourned her potential two decades before she actually passed.  It was painful being in the house, because I was constantly confronted with my own childhood trauma.  The most difficult part of that time was grieving over my relationship with you.  Losing your love and support was much harder than losing our mother, who was at that point little more than my responsibility.  On top of that, you started sending me insane emails about visions of cords tying me to the house, and you asked people to do weird rituals moving their arms in scissor motions to break the bonds.  I was by that time fiscally and legally bound to the house, but I had no sentimental attachment to the four trucks of crap we threw away or even the potential valuables we catalogued and packed.

As Passover approached, I learned that you used the 50,000 frequent flyer miles to go to California with the family.  I sent you an email, trying to sort things out and let you know the unintended hardship you caused me.  I filled it with affirming statements about how much I loved you and how I knew you didn’t do these things to hurt me intentionally, but they hurt me anyway.  I desperately wanted to clear the air before we’d meet in California.  You responded with an email fully laden with passive voice in which you took responsibility for none of you decisions.  I almost didn’t go to California, but the cousins convinced me not to stay away.  When you were about to leave California, I went upstairs because I really didn’t want to talk to you.  You followed me up and offered help over the summer.  I told you I had needed your help in March, when I was doing all the work for the estate and the house.  You said, “I wasn’t there yet.”  HOLY F-WORD-ING S-WORD BALLS!  Really?  Why did nobody tell me not being ready was an option?!?!?  I totally would have taken it.  I didn’t say any of this, of course.  I just said, “Okay,” and I walked away.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from you.  It was full of angry words.  You criticized me because I left when our mom kicked me out, because I found a way to say neutral things (positive would be too much to ask) for her memorial program, because I *did* hold the memorial, and for a few other things.  After a fresh bout of tears, the pieces started falling together and I realized what was going on.

I looked back in our past.  When Tom and Dean tried to figure out what had happened the night our mother kicked you out, you interpreted their question as a criticism on you.  You never talked to them again.  (They’re still upset by this.)  When the K family said something you didn’t like, you left their home in L.A. and never talked to them again.  When your husband said the wrong thing, you almost left him (but I reminded you that he couldn’t know why it was the wrong thing for you, because he’d never heard the story of why that was a bad thing to say, so I helped you figure out how to communicate to him what you felt when he said it and why…).  There’s a pattern here.  It’s like the pattern of defensiveness that makes every gentle suggestion into a criticism in your mind.  “Are you sure that’s a good idea,” in your mind becomes, “You are a stupid, worthless, piece of poop.”  I get it.  It’s hard.  Mine does the same, and it takes constant vigilance on my part to take words at face value and respond without defensiveness.  You still meet every supposed criticism with a rationalization (past trauma, sickness, sadness, etc.) or hostility (“I don’t know how you could even hold a memorial for that woman.”)  Essentially, you seem to share some of the patterns that made communication with our mother so arduous.

People around you have always tiptoed around you because of your emotional volatility.  I’ve tried to protect you and help you.  I would (and on some occasions did) travel to the other side of the earth to be with you if you needed me. I don’t regret that.  I did it with love.  At the same time, I’ve been your enabler for years in the same way our mother’s horrid neighbor was for her.  I apologize for that.

Two years ago, you left me with all the literal and figurative cleaning-up of our mother’s life.  I know you suffered trauma with her.  I know it hurt you.  Perhaps, in your pain, you forgot that I also suffered trauma at her hands.  She banished me when I was 11 years old and contributed to a miserable teenagerdom in which I punched walls and often contemplated suicide.  She forbade anything that might have contributed to my happiness.  She refused to come to my Bat Mitzvah, even though she was my Jewish parent.  Like you, I grew up to react with defensiveness and hostility in the face of criticism.

In my early twenties, I grieved my childhood and our mother’s life.  I learned while studying in Mexico that I would have to take responsibility for my own happiness and stop holding on to the anger toward our mother.  Around the same time, Mike taught me how to be angry at a loved one and work through it instead of severing all ties.  I found a way to have the compassion necessary to communicate with our mother and help her, without letting her hurt me with her barbs.  In my adulthood, I became our mother’s parent.  I checked in with her regularly, worked with her doctors, pushed the case managers at Adult Protective Services to move toward committing her, and even helped the state revoke her license so she’d stop playing bumper-cars with her Saturn.  I worked this out because our mother was Wolf’s baby girl, and Wolf was a total mensch.  She would never choose this sort of life if she had her faculties about her.

I recognize that you are repeating our mother’s patterns.  You cannot show empathy when it’s necessary.  You see in black and white.  You are so afraid of facing your anxiety about being imperfect, that you strike out at people who try to help you.  You did not choose to live this way, and it’s sad that these patterns keep you from some of life’s joys.

Now I understand how things went awry, and I have acclimated to this new reality.  It’s true that my heart broke in March of 2012, but my heart is used to piecing itself back together.  I do not expect any remorse, apologies, or change from you.  I will not look to you to help me feel better about the events of 2012.  They will just have to suck in retrospect.  I do not tie my emotions to your actions, and I will not take responsibility for your emotions.  Only you have control over your actions and words, and only I can control my actions and words.  Aside from occasional pangs of anger, I’m at peace with the new reality.  I promised that the animosity between sisters would die with our mother and our aunt.  I will live up to that promise, and I will act civilly.  At the same time, I have retired from my post as our mother’s bat-poop manager.  I have no inclination at all to fix problems in our family.

Moving forward, you may notice that I will keep conversation superficial.  I understand that you aren’t equipped to act with empathy, so I will avoid disclosure of personal issues that might call for it.  I will not seek you out, because I don’t feel the need to repair our relationship or drive change.  If you meet me with anger, I will respond with neutrality.  If you meet me with judgment, I will not mount a defense.  If you meet me with complaints or demands related to your emotional needs, I will remove myself.  If you meet me with a desire to return to our old level of intimacy, I will explain my boundaries as kindly as possible.

I love you and I hope to see you happy.  I won’t stand in your way, and I will always do the right thing by you (even if it’s not the pleasant thing).



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