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Sister Act: Answering the Sibling Question

The sibling question is such a hard one for me to successfully answer, and I get asked it all the time. Everyone does. It is a typical “get to know you” question, ostensibly harmless: “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I ask it myself of other people frequently.

When I was young and both of my half-siblings were alive, I just said yes. Yes, I had a brother and a sister both, even though they were a lot older than I was.

A couple of weeks after my brother died when I was 7, my mom and dad and I took a trip to get away from it all. As I was building a sand castle with another sunburned little girl in Navarre Beach, she asked me casually, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“Yes, I, um, I have a half-sister,” I said. I had never before referred to my sister as my half-sister, but I recall feeling like I had to fill the extra space left by not mentioning my brother with something.

My mom motioned me over. “Don’t do that,” she said. “She is every bit as much your sister as she was before, and you don’t have to leave your brother out. Just say you had a brother and he died.”

It was good advice, thoughtful and fair and honest – my mom always gives good advice. But, then and now, following it isn’t always that easy.

I didn’t want to tell a stranger on the beach about my dead brother; I wanted to forget about it and just build a damn sand castle.

When I started a new school at the end of that summer, I got the sibling question constantly.

I told the first person who asked that I had a sister and a dead brother.

“Oh, weird,” she said and walked away.

I told the second person who asked that I had a sister and a dead brother.

“How’d he die?” she asked.

“He killed himself,” I said.

“He’s going to hell,” she said and walked away.

I told the third person who asked that I had a sister.

And for a long time, that was my standard answer. People too often wanted to know the details of my brother’s death, details that even now I don’t like discussing. I can’t blame people for asking how my brother died, but I am still kind of appalled at the number of people who think “How’d he do it?” is an appropriate follow-up question.

Now that my sister is dead, too, it’s all too easy to just say I’m an only child. In many ways, it’s true. I am my mother’s only child, and I definitely grew up as an only child. Even when they were alive, my siblings were so much older than I was that we didn’t have a typical sibling relationship. I hate having to put well-meaning strangers through the mental gymnastics of trying to figure out how to respond to, “Well, my dad had two kids in his first marriage and then 20 years later, he had me in his third marriage, but in any case, both my brother and sister were troubled alcoholics who died way too soon” when all they were expecting was a simple yes or no.

All of this is really just an elaborate introduction to the fact that I mostly consider myself an only child, so watching my two daughters and my stepson forge relationships as siblings is really amazing for me.

Ruby and Elliot get along so much better than I ever could have imagined a 6-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy could get along. “Did you love me the moment you met me?” she asked him one night in her typical modest fashion, batting her eyelashes in his direction.

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I loved you all the time. Just don’t hug me right now, OK?”

And adding Georgia to the mix … I have honestly never seen the kind of adoration that exists among these three. I can’t say that it will last forever. Georgia turned 1 in May (How did that happen so fast?), which means that any minute now, she will be yanking on the wires to Elliot’s Xbox and scattering Ruby’s crayons across the room and copying them and following them and otherwise being an adorable toddling nuisance. But for right now, it is pretty great. Ruby woke up super-early on Georgia’s birthday because she was so excited, and she immediately rushed to her crib, sang her “Happy Birthday!” and then thanked me for giving her a sister.

I am not saying Ruby is never jealous because she is. Sometimes she asks me whether I love her or Georgia more, and I always give her the same answer: “I love you both so much in different ways. I love you because you made me a mother. I love Georgia because she made you a sister. I love you both because you made us a family. I love you and Georgia to the moon and back, and having Georgia has just given me one more way to love you, Ruby, because I love being able to watch what a good big sister you are.”

Some questions are hard to answer, but that one, at least, is very easy.

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