Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Problem We Don't Have Anymore

Recently, a blog-friend posted about sibling fights. It was a heartfelt story and it ended with a question: what do you do about sibling fights?

The question took me aback, because it's not a problem we have around here anymore. But we did, at one time.

My mother is an only child. She grew up in a household with live-in help, which she did not enjoy. She always wanted siblings. What she got instead was grandmothers and live-in help. Her family's home had three bedrooms for family (my grandparents, my mother and my French great-grandmother, GrandMere) and two bedrooms for staff. The house had a beautiful, graceful, curving staircase with a white, wrought-iron banister, and a hidden back staircase for the help. It had gorgous gardens and an orchard, maintained by the help. When my great-grandmother moved in with my mother's family after she was widowed, she brought her own maid to live with her. I am not kidding.

The three of us kids thought this was hilarious, as much as we thought the need to have a chauffeur because my grandmother was afraid to drive (due to her one attempt at driving leading to a minor accident) was funny. We could hardly fathom the stories my mother told of insisting on being let out of the car a block or so from school, so as not to be observed getting out of the chauffeur-driven Big Car. Funnier still were the stories of my grandparents and other great-grandmother (Granny) taking their live-in help with them to their summer beach cottage - and making the help live in tents. Who needs help at a cottage? Who makes them camp out in tents? Who does that? It was beyond our experience, because we grew up in a much simpler lifestyle. Later in life, we saw more of the world and understood it from my grandparents' point of view (but it is still sort of funny, to me).
Debbie, me & Jim
The point of all of the above is that my mother thought that her three children were much more fortunate than she had been as a child, because we had each other. No matter how much we irritated one another, my brother, sister and I were always reminded that we were terribly lucky just to have siblings, and that we needed to get along with and love each other. It didn't stop us from squabbling and having our differences, even as we grew older, but it made a deep impression on me. I never intended to have an "only child."
David & Katie
When Katie was born, David loved her immediately and naturally. Though they did bicker occasionally,
David & Katie in our old house
it was clear from the start that he was delighted to have her as his sister, and he naturally understood that he was blessed to be her brother. She adored him in return.

He did a fair amount of bossing her, and as they grew, I would encourage her to stand up to him (I am the youngest of three, after all), which she did, in her own way. They had ingenious ways of negotiating deals ("I'll play this much Harry Potter with you if you'll play that many hours of Playmobil with me"). For the most part, though, they preferred one another's company to that of any other playmate. It made me very happy indeed.
Katie & David on the front lawn
David & Katie in Palm Desert
Around 5th  grade (age 10 - 11 years), Katie started to want to spend more time alone in her room. She wanted David to knock before coming in. She even made a sign to remind him, which he pointedly ignored. I remember hearing her shriek at him, "Can't you READ? It says, 'Knock, Please!' " She also screamed, "I.HATE.DAVID!," which used to deeply upset me. I did my best to stop that kind of talk: we don't say "hate;" we don't say "stupid;" there are rules to fighting fair; you can disagree, but you must be nice. And then I would hear myself telling them how lucky they were just to have a mother's words.

When my blog friend wrote her post and her open question, I wondered how (or whether) to answer it. I disliked the sibling fighting, and I knew that deep-down, our children loved each other in spite of it. Sometimes they were simply bored, or had an excess of energy. Underneath the squabbling, I could see their mutual enjoyment and affection, and I saw it in action after Katie's cancer diagnosis. David moved his entire life to Seattle in order grant her wish and to support her. He was by her side every single day. When she was dying, she worried about him walking past her room, and finding it empty, and she told him so. He was with her when she died. He is the best brother he could possibly be.
The answer to the blog question is:  our children did fight sometimes, and it always disturbed me. I tried to stop it, if they didn't stop themselves. Gregg tended to let them try to work it out on their own longer than I would have; he would "tune out" their bickering.

I only wish they could still do it.

By now, who knows what their dynamic would be? David is away at university most of the year, and Katie would be a junior in high school. Perhaps most disagreements would be replaced by shared confidences, friends and happiness to be together when they could. Or perhaps they would have grown in different directions. We will never know.

I didn't comment on my friend's blog posting, because my comment would have been longer than her post. I also didn't want to overshadow her simple, perfectly natural parenting question with a tragic, dramatic answer. I don't want to be one who introduces the subject of cancer, dying and death just by showing up! Yet it is part of my life, and it shaped my response, even if that response was only in my head. So I wrote it here, instead.

By the way, I even hesitated to post this here, because I have noticed that some people feel that they have to compare their problems to our bereavement. No matter what their problem is, after discussing it with me, some will add, "Of course, this is nothing compared to what you have been through."  I want you to know that I don't evaluate life that way. When you tell me about your problems, I do not say in my heart, "She has a hangnail, but my daughter died; my  problem is bigger than hers."

Cancer and Katie's death are not the first, greatest, or only things on my mind; they are a part of my life, but not the biggest part. I do write about them a fair amount, because writing is a healthy outlet, and it keeps me from talking about them too much. Cancer and Katie's death do inform my values. However, I have a normal household with bills, pets, dirt, responsibilities, chores, concerns, joys and irritations, just like anyone else. My life and interests are diverse. I exercise; I read about all kinds of things and enjoy art, creativity, music, socializing, great stories and trivia, too.

Sometimes I do think that much is made of small things in this life, particularly by the news media and entertainment industry, but I make much of small things, too, occasionally - so, if you tell me your hardships, please do not assume that I am sitting in judgment of you or comparing your difficulties to mine. That will handicap our friendship. My heart and my capacity for caring are bigger than that.


ChiTown Girl said...

Oh my holy hell, Karen, I never realized that Katie looked so much like your sister!!! When I was scrolling down through this post, and got to the picture of you and your siblings, I thought it was a picture of Katie. When I read "Debbie," I was blown away!

As far as the sibling rivalry thing, I obviously don't have to deal with is, since Stud is an only child. Growing up, there wasn't a whole lot of fighting between me and my siblings. As the oldest, I pretty much just gave my brother and sister whatever they wanted. (And, yes, my brother and sister would back me up on that!) My brother and sister used to fight all the time, though. I generally had my nose stuck in a book, and would ignore them. ;-)

My sister has two girls, and had to deal with LOTS of fighting. It's gotten a little better now that they're both in high school, but it's still too much for me. I think because my sister and I NEVER fought, I have no point of reference for how they can treat each other like that. It just makes me sad.

Elizabeth said...

As the writer of that post and the mother of a disabled child, I am no stranger to "real" tragedy and despair or sorrow, but I'm also struck by how, despite sorrow and despair and our extraordinary stress, there still remain certain very "normal" problems. My boys' fighting does drive me nuts, but like I said today, I had the good fortune to read just two chapters in a book that someone recommended, and it was like reading a script with my boys the players. I basically learned that interfering in the squabbling exacerbates everything, that sibling rivalry for parental attention is very much at play and that one can diffuse that dynamic with clear boundaries. Like many parenting books, I find that we know these things intuitively, but it's always nice to have them affirmed by sympathetic professionals.

I have found that the unusual circumstance of having one disabled child and two "typical" ones DOES change one's perspective for the better. I usually don't sweat the small stuff very often, and I'm grateful for every single thing that is "normal." And to tell you the truth, I'm actually grateful to have these normal issues as well -- it helps me to enter into the realm of the majority of parents and not feel so very isolated.

Thank you for your honesty, Karen. As always, you are exquisitely sensitive to everyone, and your ability to show grace and gratitude no matter the circumstance is something that I can only marvel at.

WV: yogna

Elizabeth said...

I think I should probably add, too, that despite my agonizing over my boys' bickering and other aggravating behaviors, not a day goes by that I am not thankful for all that normalcy. I know and am grateful for even the "bad," because I'm painfully aware of not just how short their time with me will be but how fortunate I am to have them healthy and happy. And I know that I wouldn't have that perspective if Sophie were not here -- Sophie and the legion of other children with disabilities and illness that I have had the great good fortune to know.

Karla said...

Sibling squables are an interesting thing. I always wanted at least two kids. It was interesting being a mom of an only child for 12 years. I often pray that the kids will have solid relationships with eachother as they grow and that their differences in age doesn't keep them apart.

Angella Lister said...

this humbles me. thank you. all the best with your new book.

Busy Bee Suz said...

....and that is why I adore you so much....those last few lines. YOU are the best Karen!
I love all these precious photos, and I agree, Katie looks just like Debbie!!!
My brother and I used to fight all the time, sadly, no one was around to help with the 'working it out part' we really never got along until we were both adults and he was sick. THEN and only then did we realize we loved each other.
I think I've blogged about how my girls have been like oil and water, The constant arguments were the reason I didn't try for #3. (such a regret now!) But now, that they have more time apart, they really love and miss each other. It fills my heart!
I have a feeling that Katie and David would still be very close; they are special kids. I mean, look who raised them both.

Karen said...

Mine are all grown up and still squabble and it pains me to no end. WHY?? They should know by now that they are equally, deeply loved. When Joey was with us, the middle daughter loved to torment him. That seemed to be part of the bond and something she misses so dearly now. Her brother was her best friend in spite of the battle scars. Oh heck, Adam and Eve had this problem, as well as Isaac and Jacob, two generations with cruelly squabbling kids. If it's in Genesis, it's got to be a fact of human existence!
Your David is/was an amazing brother to Katie. I wonder if, nonetheless, she will tease him when they meet again. I am sure they both miss that part of their relationship. Saved now for another day.

Leslie said...

"so, if you tell me your hardships, please do not assume that I am sitting in judgment of you or comparing your difficulties to mine. That will handicap our friendship. My heart and my capacity for caring are bigger than that." This part in your post says it all.xoxoxo

deb colarossi said...

How did I miss this?
You are an inspiration.
My five kids fight less now and when they do they usually work it out or move on with what I perceive is unconditional love. I believe they have learned to accept that they can all be different and still love and respect . I hope that carries into their lives you know?