In Praise of Sisters: The Bonds That Shape Us

When I was 9 years old, I landed a leading role in my first play. With several hundred people in the audience and the entire children's choir behind me, I was understandably nervous. Despite my shy nature, I decided that I was going to sing my ballads and recite my lines so beautifully that people would be talking about my performance for months.

My performance was flawless -- right up until the middle of the first act, when I became so overwhelmed with stage fright that I forgot all of my lines and peed in my pants. I stared at the audience, a deer in the headlights, and wondered if this was a nightmare. The warm urine running down my leg and the muffled gasps from the front row assured me this was real life. Without missing a beat, the confident, boisterous voice of my older sister came blasting through the microphone as she recited my lines. She distracted the sea of sympathetic faces staring at me. For the rest of that act, I stood quiet and close to my sister.

What would we do without our sisters, both biological and chosen? There are certain things that you become accustomed to when you grow up with three sisters -- the bathroom never being available, hysterical outbursts over a borrowed sweater or favorite pair of jeans, and the ability to communicate via facial expression and body language. At the dinner table, using only my eyes, I could form an alliance with one sister and insult another. We had a secret world together, my sisters and I. One time, in an attempt to interrupt our silent conversations, our mother hung a bed sheet over the mirror in the dining room. The mirror had been positioned just perfectly so that we could all watch each other and communicate without even having to turn our heads.

Even now, as adults, my sisters and I share a language and closeness that cannot be replicated with other friends or even spouses. Together, we have endured heartbreak and tragedy, and are the first to celebrate each other's victories. However, as with most siblings, we have not always gotten along. I remember a particularly volatile argument where our parents laughed and promised, "Someday you four will be best friends, just wait and see."

We scoffed at their remarks; we hated each other's existences. Until one day, we didn't. One day we finally understood that while we had many things in common (our father's eyes and our mother's sense of humor) we were four very different people with different goals, desires, and beliefs --and that was OK. Why can that be so hard to accept in relationships? For some of us, it was a gradual shift into a peaceful relationship, and for others it was more deliberate -- a tear-filled conversation where we both agreed to lay down our guns and ceasefire.

I have learned, painfully at times, that love is not necessarily the same thing as acceptance. But because of my sisters, I have been fortunate enough to experience both. Without effort or awareness, my sisters have taught me in other relationships to love more deeply and accept more freely, simply because of the way they love and accept me.

My sisters have taught me how to be a better coworker, a better wife and a better friend. With remarkable compassion and patience, they have taught me that who you are today is not who you have to be tomorrow. Over the years, our personalities and core beliefs will change, sometimes making us completely unrecognizable to others, but we must fight the urge to pack our bags and run away screaming. Remaining flexible and understanding during those periods of growth (and temporary insanity) is what ultimately leads to meaningful, deep relationships.

I never imagined that my snot-faced, irritating baby sister would grow up to be the woman who held me all night during my first panic attack, comforting me in a way that nobody else could. The sister I clashed with most as a teenager -- the one I swore I'd never speak to again once we lived apart -- is now one of my closest friends and confidants. And she's ironically the one I cry to on the phone because our 350-mile distance is just too far. Through trial and error, we gracefully (and not so gracefully) learned how each sister needed to be loved, encouraged, and handled. Eventually, a unique sisterhood full of respect, unconditional love, and forever-silliness has emerged.

May we all be the kind of sisters, whether biological or chosen, who fight with each other, but always make up. Who upon being asked, "does this make me look fat?" answers honestly with, "yes, absolutely" and then adds whale call sounds for effect. Who else but a sister can know our greatest weaknesses, but never take advantage of them? Who else but a sister will always be there to grab the microphone and keep the show going when we forget our lines?

A small excerpt of this essay has appeared in the the book SISTER STORIES: Bonds that Shape Us, by Brenda Peterson (Delphinius Publishing)