There are so many hard lessons we have to learn in life. Our family, friends and even our enemies usually teach us. Sometimes we can find answers in books, on television, or in school.
Our personal encyclopedias of knowledge are the sum of our experiences, and it’s important to remember that not everyone has the same material available to them.
I read a lot as a young person, before life got so jam packed with responsibility that I spent less time with my books. I learned so much from the stories in those pages, and one lesson stands out.
It was a story of a young girl who had an older sister. They had always been so, so very close. No matter what life threw at them, they weathered the storm together.
Because of the vast age difference between them, the older sister moved out and married when the younger sister was still at an impressionable but somewhat selfish age. The older sister moved far away, and so the younger sister wasn’t around to witness her new life on a daily basis.
Instead, she had a picture in her head of what life had always been like. Subconsciously, she didn’t really acknowledge the changes.
One summer, the little sister went to stay with her older sibling, her husband and their new baby. She went with her old expectations.
It was disconcerting to have to share her sister – whom she had always considered her other half – with other people. It was even more disturbing to realize that instead of being the sun in her sister’s universe, she was now just a planet. An important planet, but still.
Her sister didn’t always have time for late night chats. She couldn’t just drop everything and take her to lunch, or to the mall. And worst of all, her sister would retreat behind closed doors with that man, that outsider, and share secrets that she was no longer privy to.
She became very unhappy that summer. She couldn’t understand why her sister had replaced her. In her mind, with its expectations written in chapters of the past, her sister had betrayed her.
And then she had a disagreement with her sister’s husband. It was silly, really, but blew up when she complained to her sister about the husband, and her sister, instead of immediately taking her side, chided her about learning to get along with others.
Furious, the little sister called her parents and told them she was flying home early. She had been betrayed. Her sister never had time for her, she had pushed her aside in favor of new people. What about family?!
The morning of her flight, her brother in law had to drive her to the airport.
She sat fuming in the passenger seat.
He tried to explain, to help her write another chapter in her book of knowledge.
I will always remember his speech, if not word for word, at least in summary.
“You were always number one,” he said. “But then your sister found a love of a different type, a type you don’t yet understand. And then she had a child, and another new love.”
The little sister rolled her eyes. All this talk about love. She understood love. Who was this guy? He was just a guy. He didn’t understand sisters.
“The thing is,” he continued, “You’re not number one anymore. You’re not number two either. But if you could learn to settle for number three, or later on, number four, you’d see that it’s not so bad.”
“It doesn’t mean your sister doesn’t love you. It just means that life has changed, and with it, so have priorities. You can still be a part of your sister’s life. An important part. But not number one.”
This was an earth-shattering revelation for the sister. Not number one.
“And you’ll most likely find that you’re gaining more than you’re losing. Yes, you won’t always win disagreements. Yes, your phone call might not be the first she returns. But you get a brother. And you get a niece, and maybe on down the line more children who will love you and call you their favorite aunt.”
He parked the car and looked at her. She stared back, tears forming, still unyielding in her posture but her heart beginning to understand.
I think of that story often as our family grows. As my favorite aunt married later in life. As my uncle remarried and gained a step child.
And now as my sister prepares to share her life with someone.
I haven’t always agreed with, or honestly, in the beginning, even liked my new uncle, my new aunt, my new cousin or my future brother in law.
But I was happy for my family members when they found their partners, understood when my place in things changed, and because of that have gained so much.
I have an uncle who is remarkably gifted in research, wholly generous and incredibly funny.
I have an aunt who is so strong she can handle anything that gets thrown at her.
I have a cousin who, although I rarely see him, is still one of my favorite people to run into and is brilliant and funny and has a rebel soul that is kindred to my own.
And one day, I will hopefully have a brother in law – no, a brother. A brother that I have always wanted. One who keeps my sister in line, wink wink, and helps my family do life.
That last change, that newest change, will be hard for me. My sister has three boys, nephews that I have helped to raise and have loved fiercely since the moment I saw them. And now they have a daddy, and instead of just calling up my sister and saying, “Hey, I’m coming to get the boys,” which has always been cool with her, I have to remember to ask if it’s cool with him too.
I have to learn that his ideas on child rearing and family and the general way things should be done is going to be different than mine, that it will most likely affect my sister’s way of thinking as well. And that it’s ok. That’s how things work.
I will know my place. I will accept it. And I will be glad for all I have gained instead of mourning something lost.