*This post is deeply personal and shares more than I ever thought I could. I consider myself a pretty private person but I wrote this for a contest a year ago because I had to get this out. Cathartic, you might say.
The question posed was this: When did you first understand the meaning of love? Here’s what I wrote:
Magnolia Gardens sounds like a nice enough name for an apartment complex, especially one located in sublime South Carolina. It evokes images of lush Magnolia trees, stately and grand. Flowers and foliage and ferns, oh my. My youngest and only sister (who I’ll just call Lucy) lives there with my thirteen-year-old nephew. Younger by three years, Lucy looks nothing like me. Blonde hair, blue eyes-the complete opposite of my study in brown. But more than just looks, we are so totally different. For Magnolia Gardens is government-subsidized housing. My thirty eight year old sister, unemployed, nearly broke, living month to month with only a Social Security check to keep her afloat. She gets that because my Nephew’s daddy died in his twenties of liver failure (drank himself to death).
I have to give you Lucy’s full story. Even though it reads like a crazy soap opera melodrama. Lucy lived with Baby Daddy’s family for several years, before and after Nephew was born. The commune, I called it. Too many people and not enough bedrooms. I think 10 people were living under one roof of a two bedroom hovel. So no room for Lucy, Baby Daddy, or Nephew. The family wasn’t cruel physically but mentally and how. So Lucy took off when Nephew was two and went to a Safe Homes shelter.
From there, she lived in a mill village house with one of the women she met in the shelter. Another dump but a roof over her head. She was squeaking by. And then she met Mr. Nice Guy, who was truly kind and adored her. That was the problem-he loved her more than she loved herself. Living with Mr. Nice Guy made things easier financially, but I saw her slowly drift away from him emotionally even though the more she drifted, the harder he worked to keep her. Lucy meets someone online, texts him all the time, all the while living with Mr. Nice Guy. She has been in close contact with me and my parents and things are going well. Too well. Then, she vanishes. We simply don’t know where.
It turns out she took off and moved to Myrtle Beach to live with Internet Guy. We are crestfallen, devastated. My parents are peeved she has so little regard for us to let us know, but I know it’s deeper than that. She followed her fickle, teenage-like heart and Lucy couldn’t stand knowing of our disapproval. It was easier on her just to run away and not know. But the bridge with my parents is burned, and mine with her is singed.
Fast forward one year. I am on vacation in Myrtle Beach with my family. I have had some contact with my sister but it has been remote at best. Yet we make plans to meet. I need to see them both and know that they are OK. Lucy’s world is suddenly rocked. Internet Guy kicks her out. While I’m down there. Lucy and Nephew have no place to go. Most of her stuff is at Internet Guy’s apartment. She is afraid and doesn’t want to go back. She probably has $ 20 to her name—not even enough money for a motel. And I bail her out. She slinks back home, ashamed and dejected, the next day.
My sister is on welfare. She has been unemployed for almost four years. A college dropout and single mother who had a baby out of wedlock. She barely has enough money to live, let alone a savings account. I have a postgraduate degree from law school. Living debt-free. I don’t say these things to brag but as evidence of a perplexing question-why are we so different? We grew up in the same home, raised by the same parents, given the same opportunities. It’s hard to wrap my brain around sometimes. And what about my Nephew? In his short life, he has lived at 8 different places and has attended 5 schools and he’s just in middle school. Magnolia Gardens must seem like an oasis to him because it is the first time he has had a bedroom all his own. I don’t mention all the sordid details of Lucy’s life to belittle her or others like her. But to understand, you had to know her story and mine.
Loving Lucy is hard. Because it is often times a one-way street. It used to be like this: she would call when she needed something. You could count on her to appear around Thanksgiving. Then she would stick around through her birthday, Christmas, and Nephew’s birthday. And then drop off the radar again. We were being used. And she didn’t see it. At all. She was so self-absorbed in her situation perhaps she just couldn’t. But this past year, a change. A new boyfriend. An operation to remove a benign tumor. She’s exercising. Talking about finding a job-even interviewing. Nothing yet. But baby steps.
What do you do when the person needing a handout the most is your sister? My sweet baby sister struggles to find her place in this grown up world. I grapple with her lifesytle and my Nephew’s future and see it only through my perspective. As though she has to live as I live. Wrong lens.
Then I read a book that changed my whole perspective. And taught me a thing or two about what it means to really love someone for who they are. Unconditionally. The Same Kind of Different as Me opened my eyes. The book centers on the unexpected relationship between a wealthy art dealer, Ron Hall, and a homeless drifter named Denver Moore whose paths collide in a Houston soup kitchen. One well-educated, well to-do, affluent. The other? An illiterate African- American from Louisiana. The friendship that develops despite their differences is awe-inspiring. I found myself wondering: What do you do when your sister—your own flesh and blood—is your Denver? Her life took an entirely different trajectory than mine. Many siblings’ lives do-we are not unique in that respect. But her journey, so intertwined with mine, teaches me more than I could learn from those more like me.
You asked the age-old question: what does love mean? I could recount the intense, love at first sight, searing feeling that overwhelmed me at the birth of my two children. The moment I met and fell in love with my amazing giver husband. Picture it: he was the studly lifeguard twirling the whistle while I swam around in my dorky swim team Speedo trying to compete with bikini-clad bimbo with her own flotation devices). Or even early experiences with parents, grandparents, wonderful teachers, and family friends. But hey, it’s easy to love someone who loves you back. Instead, my sister love has taught me the real meaning of love: be there no matter what. And don’t let your sense of entitlement or expectations get in the way. Let’s face it, Lucy and I will never be sisters in the way I envisioned. So I had to get over it. And just love. And that’s the hardest part of all.
And maybe because loving Lucy IS hard, I am a better person. Mother. Wife. Friend. Because I have learned to do things for others with no expectation of what I might gain. Putting all narcissism aside and giving from a pure place. Lending a helping hand to others without thought of recognition or reward. It spills over into my daily living-and I am blessed. I am 41 years old, and it took me this long to find the meaning of love.
Thanks to my sister, Lucy.