This essay originally appeared on Medium.
My sister, Alison, was biologically my half-sibling, but I never described her that way. Our mom and her dad divorced when she was a baby, and our parents married when she was two. She grew up calling my dad, ‘Dad,’ and that’s why I use the term ‘our parents’ throughout this essay. Aside from genetics, I was never any closer to my full brother than to my half-sister.
Alison and our brother, Austin
In a typical ’80s custody agreement, Ali would see her father every other weekend and alternating holidays, though this arrangement faded away once she became a teen. When the visits stopped, I found myself going long stretches of time without having her family cross my mind.
Alison was intensely private and gave our mom the shortest possible answers to any questions related to her paternal relatives, but occasionally she would mention to me that she went out to dinner with one of her sisters, or that she joined her dad and her stepmom for the Westminster Dog Show (one of their annual traditions).
When we were young, I was intensely jealous that Alison had two families and I would beg her to bring me on her weekend visits. She would get two sets of holiday gifts and I daydreamed about how fun it would be to have more sisters. Alison and I fought relentlessly as children. She was the constant instigator, and I was the short-tempered whiner. I figured I’d have better luck at a sisterly connection if there were more players in the game. Her next youngest sister was nearly my age. I was certain that we’d be best friends.
When Alison was away I would sometimes sneak into her room and look at her polaroids from the weekends with her dad. I’d always linger over a photo of her older stepsister with a walkman, caught mid-sentence, and another of her younger half-sisters still in their nightgowns in a joyful tangle on the floor. I can remember believing that her sisters were my sisters. I would tell my friends that they were my half-half sisters, as if that were a real thing. I’d brag about how cool it was that I had four sisters. Nevermind that at that point I’d never met three of them.
Alison with our parents.
The only frustration I ever felt from being Alison’s half-sister came from the minor inconvenience of not getting to inherit her academic reputation. Alison was good at school, and I always missed out on the first-day good graces and positive attention that teachers typically bestow to the younger siblings of their beloved former students.
“You’re not even my real sister!”
Alison had olive skin like her dad and dark hair to match our mother. I am pale with our dad’s lighter brown hair. Alison lovingly (?) referred to it as swamp hair. I thought that when her son was born with hair that matched his father (and coincidentally me) she’d drop the swamp adjective, but she affirmed that Sam had swamp hair too.
As a child, Alison and I once got in a fight over breakfast and I shouted, “You’re not even my real sister!” My sister was a lot tougher than me, in every way you can imagine, and I was surprised to see that she was immediately stung by my words. Our dad turned to me and in the most disappointed voice said, “I can’t believe you would say that. You of all people.”
I said it because I didn’t believe it. I said it because it wasn’t true. Now that she is dead, I regret never telling her that she was always my sister. I worry that she felt like an outsider in her own home and I was too self-absorbed to notice.
Since her death, I’ve obsessed over little details from our past that I had always overlooked. How a handful of my paternal relatives would often gossip about Alison in front of me — they made it clear that they didn’t like her very much and even at a young age I noticed how their scorn was always directed at my sister, but never any of the biological relatives.
How we have a home video and in the background, our dad calls Ali a pain in the ass. Did he lose his temper more often with her? Or did he actually treat us the same (which is what my memory tells me)?
There was also the time at our dad’s funeral —his business partner forgot to reference Alison in his speech, even when he made a point to mention how happy dad was to be a father following the births of my brother and me. When my sister’s name was left out, Ali and I immediately locked eyes. Her expression and nervous chuckle read, ‘but what about me?’ and I wondered the same thing.
Alison and me — picture day
Alison’s husband assures me that she never expressed any feelings of exclusion and I force myself to believe him, but I never asked her if it was hard to grow up in our family of five while she was the only one with a different last name. I never questioned if it was difficult for her to look different from our brother and me. I never wondered what it felt like to navigate two families that never spoke to each other.
I saw two faces that mirrored the unfamiliar traits of my sister’s familiar face.
Her funeral was only the second time I had ever seen my sister’s siblings in person. The last time we crossed paths was almost 30 years ago at Ali’s surprise birthday party.
My family organized Alison’s service, which took place on a late August afternoon, ten days after she collapsed unexpectedly and died.
My contribution to this event I never wanted to attend was to put together picture collages to display around the room's perimeter. I couldn’t find any photos of her sisters, so they weren’t included.
Looking through thousands of photos and choosing specific memories to represent my sister’s 37-year life the week after her devastating death was a Herculean task, and I didn’t have enough concern left to be courteous of other people’s feelings. I knew that her sisters should be on the boards, but I didn’t make an effort to make sure they were there.
I didn’t see Ali’s sisters until we ran into each other on the stairs at the reception. I saw two faces that mirrored the unfamiliar traits of my sister’s familiar face. I apologized for the lack of photographic evidence of their life together. A life I know very little about.
The older of the two opened her hands to show me a few snapshots they had brought with them. My sister driving a boat on a sunny day. My sister smiling on their couch.
It was surreal to see her as a child with another family, unnatural, like the time I saw Mike Meyers at my hometown restaurant. He didn’t fit in the familiar, comforting space. In my mind, my sister, a person I’ve studied since my birth, a person that I know so well that I can come close to predicting her reaction to any situation, didn’t fit with another family. I know that they’re her family. I can logically conclude that they lost an important person, just like we did. But my heart doesn’t see it that way.
I hugged them politely and repeated in my brain, “These are my sister’s sisters.”
I know the ending is supposed to be something like, ‘we hugged and cried and clung to each other in our mutual loss,’ or, ‘we kept in touch and filled each other in on the missing pieces of our sister’s life.’ Or maybe even, ‘we grew our own relationship over our mutual connection and now we’re so close and we text memes in our new family chat and ask each other advice late in the night.’
But this is real life, and it’s complicated. And, quite frankly, I’m selfish.
Though I never wanted anyone to think of Alison as anything less than my full sister, I now do the same to these two women. In my mind, they’re clearly her half-sisters and I was, and always will be, her sister.
Alison, left, and me with our children
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