How I Came to Terms with "Losing" My Sister to Her Soul Mate
I realized our relationship would never be the same, and that's OK.
It was seven years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday: I was too annoyed to feel scared as I floated on my back downriver waiting to be rescued. Minutes earlier, our two-person kayak had capsized in the Dart River just outside of Queenstown, New Zealand, and my sister, Maria, is screaming for me from the shoreline. When our young guide's rope-tossing skills fall short, a brave Japanese father, enjoying the same kayaking tour with his wife and two small girls, stands waist-deep in water and reaches out for me as I cruise by. He grabs ahold of my life-jacket and laboriously yanks me onto the pebbly shore. Frazzled and frozen to the bone, I don't calm down until Maria comes running to hug me.
"It's OK, my sister," she whispers soothingly over and over again. "It's OK. I love you, I love you." Though she's only 17 months older than me, she's my big sis, my support system, and all the family I have on this two-week trip halfway around the globe from our NYC home. Adding to my neediness is that we are just two days out from our first Christmas away from our parents. The timing for the vacation isn't ideal, but when I scored a travel assignment in New Zealand that December, I jumped on it and split my sister's costs so she could join me. (Related: Why You Should Add a Mother-Daughter Trip to Your Travel Bucket List)
Her warm embrace slowly brings me back to reality, stops my body from shivering, and quiets my racing thoughts. Best of all, it makes me feel closer to her than I had in months.
Our Sisterhood...and Dave
Don't get me wrong, Maria and I are super close, literally. I moved two floors above her in our apartment building in Brooklyn almost two years ago, after our first-ever sister trip to Argentina. Our two weeks together in South America forced us to set aside our busy, career-obsessed lives and make 24/7 time for each other, which helped us reconnect in a way that we hadn't since we moved out of our parents' home after college, nearly a decade earlier. The success of that trip has led us to have more adventures together, including a jaunt in Hawaii and, of course, New Zealand. Having her undivided attention and unconditional love on the cold riverbank that afternoon is exactly what I need from this trip, especially since I had felt that I had recently dropped down a notch on Maria's priority list. (Related: One Woman Shares How Mother's Day Has Changed for Her Since Losing Her Mom)
I've always known that sharing my favorite person on this planet—and the only sibling I have—with her partner was going to be difficult. What made matters worse is that her new boyfriend, Dave, was a total sweetheart from day one, wanting nothing more than to adopt me as a sister, too. Grrreat. His kindness and total acceptance of me and my demanding ways ("Can I please have sister-time alone without you? Aka, LEAVE.") has made it hard to dislike him. Not that I want to. It's important to be happy for my sister, who has finally found "the man for her," as she says, but still, I never imagined that her finding "the one" would mean I would no longer be her number one. (Related: The One Factor That's Most Responsible for Your Happiness)
I know it sounds like I'm jealous, and that's probably true since I don't have my very own lobster yet. But what surprises me most is that I feel so possessive of my Maria, more than ever. What's different now is that we're older and lean on each other a lot, especially as our parents are aging and will eventually require more of our collaborative effort to take care of them. Beyond that, Maria is that ever-present hug that squeezes out my sorrows over job changes, break-ups, fights with friends, and more. As often as I hug others, including strangers (I can be very welcoming, too!), nothing feels as protective, loving, accepting, and right as her hold.
And now she's holding Dave. Like all the time.
And there's no imminent end in sight, but rather further confirmation that Dave isn't going anywhere, which changes everything between sisters. Suddenly, Dave will—and has been since they met that fateful Labor Day—be her top priority. (Related: Science Says That Friendships Are Key to Lasting Health and Happiness)
"This is a happy problem, but it's a hard transition that no one talks about," advises my wise, older cousin, Richard, who went through something similar with his older brother, Michael. Watching Michael get married, move to a home in New Jersey and have three beautiful kids was equally challenging for Richard, and not because he's single like me. It was the "transition," as he calls it, of losing your immediate family member (and best friend) to their own new immediate family. The spouse takes on the role of the sibling in many ways, being the secret-keeper, sounding-board, inside-joker, fashion and financial adviser, cookie-splitter, go-to hugger, and more. And on top of that, the spouse provides things a sibling simply cannot. So there's no contest. Not that I'm saying it's a competition (but it totally is).
Am I selfish? Maybe. But that's a luxury that I can afford as a single woman with no responsibilities to anyone other than moi. Learning to share her will take time, and I'm not there yet. I'm closer to letting go, but I fear I may never totally get used to being a not-so-immediate family member, even when I have my own partner and kids. What I have to remind myself is that our primary sibling bond is so deep and everlasting, I don't need to question it or feel like I'm being replaced. And because we're both in our 30's and neither of us has gotten hitched "young," it's arguable that we've had more time than most to solidify our connection and build memories.
Now, Our New Relationship(s)
My sister and Dave got married three years after our New Zealand sister trip and eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where Maria runs a theater company. She's very successful and has built a good life for herself there. While COVID-19 has currently paused our travels, Maria had been coming up to NYC to see shows for work and stay with me in my Brooklyn apartment every month. We'd have coffee, call our parents, go for walks, watch TV...it was lovely. I miss her tremendously (sometimes, so much it hurts), but now I try to focus on my own priorities, including moving to California with my partner once we're on the other side of this pandemic.
As I prepare for this cross-country move, my childhood best friend, Tatiana, reminded me over dinner one day of this profound emotion that I felt years ago with Maria. She tells me she's happy that I met this wonderful man and is so supportive of this exciting new adventure, but also she's feeling jealous and sad.
"Jealous?" I ask, surprised by her word choice as she's been happily married for 14 years. "More like sad," she emphasizes with incredible self-awareness, recognizing that my priorities have shifted, and it's hard. "I'm so thrilled for you. This is what you've wanted for a long time. But, at the same time, I feel like I'm losing you. Things won't ever be the same."
Yes, it'll be different and likely good, but never exactly the same. I take a deep breath and nod as I share a quote with her that I recently read in Lori Gottlieb's bestselling book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: "with any change—even good, positive change—comes loss." I can relate, sister.