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Personal Essay | On Family, Chosen Family, and Sisterhood

By Jessica Grey

As I have gotten older, I’ve become increasingly leery of holidays meant to celebrate this or that member of the family and of holidays that focus so hard on family togetherness. Not that I think family should not be celebrated, but the narratives we have around family don’t apply to everyone and, depending on the circumstance, that can be a really painful experience. In some cases, it is the loss of a family member that makes those days painful; sometimes, it is the pain of never having had someone in one of those prized family roles. These days hurt when you are estranged from or have been disowned by your family. And, sometimes, it is the fact that a member, or multiple members, of your family is/are not safe for you to be around that makes all these holidays feel like a sucker punch.

Because there are some members of the family I was born into that are unsafe, because of having been disowned, and because of loss, I have learned to place my faith in my chosen family—which does include some of my blood family—, rather than leaning on ideas like “blood is thicker than water” (or our possible misinterpretation of the phrase). The folks that make up my chosen family accept me as I am, while always encouraging me to reach farther and do better. Each of them is a safe-haven for me when the world becomes too much for me to handle on my own. They are not afraid of my mental illness, they consider my physical limitations, and they keep me in check when I start sounding like a know-it-all. My chosen family has been an enormous source of support during hardships and they are always as happy to share in my joy as I am to share in theirs.

And they definitely encourage my instinct to do weird awesome shit like this.

I consider myself fortunate beyond imagining that both of my biological sisters are members of my chosen family. Were we not blood-related and we happened across one another’s paths, I would choose both of them for my family over and over again. Both of them are among the brightest constellations in my sky; but, today, I want to take some time to celebrate my baby sister, whose birthday always falls right around Sisters Day.

I used to joke that the day she was born was the best day ever: I got a new baby sister and I got Baskin Robbins! I mean—I won’t lie—I was five years old and Baskin Robbins was a rare treat, but what I really remember about that day was meeting the most perfect baby I had ever seen. Again, I was only five, so it’s not like I had seen scads of newborns but, even now, I still think she was the most perfect baby. And I was so overwhelmed by the idea that she would be coming home to our house and I was going to be her biggest sister.

Watching her grow up was a remarkable experience. I mean, yeah, we’re sisters: sometimes I thought she was a brat and sometimes she thought I was a big, ol’ meanie head. But watching her wide eyes bright with curiosity taking in the world around her and her imagination building worlds beyond this one was amazing. Even still, her dimpled smile always brightens my day and when she falls into a fit of uncontrollable laughter, there is no way for me to not laugh with her.

Part of our deep bond was forged by, sometimes, being all each other had: we faced some unique circumstances at times and came through those weird and, sometimes, scary times—hand in hand. Still, our relationship has not always been the closest, which I deeply regret. The distance between us was, in part, a product of the age difference, but mostly because of me: because I was a teenager at one point and we all know how wonderful that time is; because I was grieving, but didn’t know how to grieve; and because I was beginning my battle with what I now know is mental illness. I want so much to go back to those days and scoop her up and away from then-me, hold her close, and let her know that it was not about her. I want to cradle her, tell her how sorry I am, and ease the hurts I dealt out to her in the midst of my own pain.

Despite those times that I really was a meanie head, we’ve grown into a close bond. While I know full well that she is my sister, she is first and foremost my friend—one of the truest friends I will ever have. We are separated now by substantial distance and the varying schedule constraints of our own lives, so we don’t get to talk as often as we would like; when we do talk, though, we pick up right where we left off without skipping a beat. She and I can talk for hours or sit in comfortable silence together. We’ll talk about the heavy, deep stuff and intersperse the conversation with oh-so-mature penis jokes. We can and do have entire conversations comprised of meaningful glances and facial expressions. She is one of those very few people who I feel is kin to my soul.

What a couple of weirdos!

She is, by far, one of the best people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. She is kind, strong, compassionate, hilarious, smart, loving, and probably rolling her eyes right now, if she’s reading this. I am so proud to know her, to call her my sister, and name her among my chosen family. Thank you for being you, li’l sis. Happy Sisters Day! And, as you celebrate your twenty-ninth birthday, know that I love you, I’m proud of you, and you’re still a mule. *wink*

 

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