Once upon a time, my sister and I were friends. We had survived a difficult upbringing and become each other’s life preservers in the rocky waters of post-abuse self actualization. However, as men came into our lives, that changed. My sister married a man after crying to me for months on end about how he had cheated on her. I became engaged to a guy she couldn’t stand to be around. A small rift quickly developed into a gaping canyon between us and, before I knew it, she had children that I was seeing only once or twice a year.
I had always imagined I would be a fun aunt that nieces/nephews would look forward to hanging out with. Instead, I was turning out to be an absent aunt, a stranger as far as they were concerned. Shortly before my nephew’s first birthday, I finally decided enough was enough and that it was not acceptable to me to not have a relationship with my niece and nephew, even if it meant having to wade through the tension with my sister.
I extended the first olive branch in January of this year, asking if I could come visit the kids. Things were awkward with my sister, but we focused on the kids and it felt important to me that I was there. And it was important. Just a few short months later, I became the first non-parental person to get a hug from my nephew. My sister was amazed. For me, it was proof that I was investing my time wisely and it strengthened my resolve.
Slowly, as the kids and I spent more time together, my sister and I began to thaw towards each other. And then a couple of weeks ago she extended a major olive branch of her own. She invited me to join her family for a weekend in Chicago, flights and hotel paid for by her and her husband. (Business class flights, no less. Sweet!)
So yesterday, we spent a fun family morning together at Navy Pier, I spent the afternoon with my niece playing together in the Lego Store (“no-baby day” as she called it), followed by more family time romping around in a park trying to get high fives from my nephew every time he zoomed to the bottom of the slide. Man, I love these kids!
In the evening, we adults went for a ridiculously expensive, boutique dining experience to a restaurant where the chef decides what everyone will eat and almost every ingredient is something you would never find in your local grocery store. (For example, the first of thirteen courses was snail caviar with matsutake, mojama de atun, cucamelon and avocado.)
The really amazing thing that happened at dinner, though, is that my sister and I had the first real conversation we’ve had in years. We talked about nothing – the temperamental chef, the beautifully crafted food – and everything – family, kids, life. We took our first photo together since her wedding, and I heard her drunk laugh like she used to in our twenties.
We are healing, I can feel it. We have been through darkness, and I think we have both consciously decided our relationship is worth working for, and that me having a relationship with her kids is more important than any rifts between us.
When I think about how we came to this point, I think of Gandhi’s powerful words: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” I’m finally learning to live that way. I’m realizing that it doesn’t have to be grand acts; it can be small olive branches, because all the small choices we make each day can bring love into the world and compound into one large beautiful change. We have the power to make that happen, we just have to decide to do it.