My mother used to tell me how much I loved my sister. How I’d be caught trying to cuddle her in her crib as a baby; how I’d parade her around my friends like a local celebrity; how she had to be put in a different room on her low-seated cot because, left defenceless, I’d too aggressively pinch her cheeks.
My sister and I were branded “the close siblings” our entire childhoods. My adoration was a fundamental part of our family lore. The reliable, abusive outbursts of our father forged our relationship further – my archetypal protectiveness as the elder sibling cemented. We were inseparable in the way that children are.
So how did we end up here? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. For the length of our adulthood we’ve said nothing to each other. Years of lunches through glazed eyes, fleeting visits with boyfriends always in the room, and a mutual feeling that it was the other one who messed up whatever it was we had. For almost ten years, we haven’t fitted into each other’s lives. I have recurring nightmares that she has died and that I’ve lost the chance to repair what has gradually come undone.
Despite that fear, I haven’t pursued a relationship beyond our new status quo. Even after an uncharacteristic blow-up nine months ago, we both quietly agreed neither of us had the bandwidth to change things in the short term. In lockdown, my nightmares have become more frequent, and yet I continue the way I always have, presuming one day, our relationship would eventually go back to how it was. That our semi-regular visits would magically transform us through no effort of my own.
My sister and I grew up in the US but, apart from the year I lived in the UK before she also moved over, we’ve rarely ever been more than a few miles apart. We both lived in Scotland for five years and, by complete coincidence, both moved to London in mid-2018. But for the past three months we have been isolating 400 miles apart. So we’ve started having phone calls. This is what we’re supposed to do now, right?
At first I rang when I walked the dog, having to ask her to hang on every few minutes as I let someone pass me on the path. These calls rhythmically mimicked the half-there conversations we’d been having in person – a glorified rundown of events that had occurred in the time since our last call. But one morning she said she had some medical news. After years of trying to figure out what was causing her chronic pain, it seemed as though a specialist had finally found an answer. So I reserved time – time to sit alone, in a room, with nothing but the mirrored wardrobe opposite to distract me.
Being on the phone, when being on the phone is the only thing you’re doing, feels like being in a tunnel. Losing focus is difficult; there is nothing but the person you’re talking to. It becomes easy to feel the weight of every single word and it suddenly strikes you that, maybe for the first time, you’re actually paying attention.
That morning we chose to be available for each other and had our first conversation as adults. For three hours, we talked. For three hours, things changed.
Through small, quiet ways we returned to our former middle ground. I tried not to let her hear my voice break as I nonchalantly said things I’d been holding back for years and she admitted insecurities we share, but she’s only just come to terms with. And underpinning every confession, every disclosure, was the knowledge that we are both each other’s only person. That we both only have one sister, and that she is the only person who can understand our shared trauma. There is an intimacy of knowing about each other in this specific way.
That phone call was a shift that would not have happened outside these circumstances. And maybe it will never be more than that, just one shift in a single conversation. But that tunnelled moment we were afforded, that opening in our bandwidth, might have been enough to snap us out of it. A moment to acknowledge our new normal, and to admit that, maybe, we both want it to be different.
This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football