I WAS HORRIBLE to my sister when we were kids. Really horrible. I either bullied or ignored her every day. And of course I was deeply ashamed of this as an adult, but I’d never had the guts to apologize. Maybe there was no point in dredging up the past. I couldn’t expect forgiveness. And I certainly didn’t expect the extraordinary gift she gave me last year.
We grew up on the South Shore in the ’80s. When my sister and I were still young, Dad went to therapy and realized he was gay. Suddenly our lives were an after-school special. Our parents divorced. Dad moved to a condo in Bay Village, where we visited on weekends. I was angry, so I took it out on the only person I could dominate: my younger sister.
She was my nemesis. If I caught her talking to my friends, like a jealous lover I threw a fit. I wouldn’t let her play my records or read my Peanuts comic books. When I went into silent-treatment mode, it lasted for days. By high school, we’d grown into diametrical opposites and become everything the other despised. I shopped at The Limited and wore my hair in a conservative bob. She wore combat boots and dyed her mohawk bright blue.
We were away at college when Dad was diagnosed HIV-positive. Both of us were devastated, but we handled the news very differently. I moved to California after graduation and partied with my friends. My sister transferred to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to be closer to Dad. When the anti-retroviral cocktail stopped working and he got really sick, she administered his meds and drove him to all his doctors’ appointments. I wasn’t an idiot; I knew this arrangement made her a better person than I. But instead of appreciating what she was doing, I resented her more. I committed myself to the part of bad daughter.
We were both with Dad for his last few days, then planned his memorial service and designed his gravestone. We ordered Chinese and smoked the joints that he had kept in his freezer to help stimulate his appetite. There was no rancor; we’d reached a detente.
Weeks later, my sister asked to come visit. She flew to LA, and I taught her how to drive a stick. We headed east in my hatchback with only a loose plan for where we’d end up. We spent long periods in silence on that road trip, grieving Dad through Arizona, past the Navajo Nation, and as far as Santa Fe. Each night, we pulled over when we found a hotel, charging the room to his credit card. A tectonic plate within each of us shifted out there in the desert. We were now on the same side.
My husband and I can’t have a baby, and last year my sister offered to be our surrogate, doing artificial insemination with my husband’s sperm. I was shocked, but I couldn’t say no to an offer that generous – especially one I didn’t deserve. So we hired lawyers, drafted a contract, and underwent the psychiatric evaluation required by law. (I still didn’t manage to work an apology into any of those conversations.) We found a fertility clinic in her town and overnighted my husband’s sperm there five times. It didn’t work.
My sister wanted to give us a gift of a baby. The baby never materialized, but her offer was the true gift. Ever since that, I’m different. I no longer wonder if she forgives me. It’s exquisite to be loved enough to get a gift like that. I think of it whenever I’m feeling unlovable. I know now that my sister and I are no longer in a competition for best daughter or best sister. We’re just two women who would do anything for each other.
And Margot, I’m really sorry.
Joanna Lovinger is a writer in Los Angeles. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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