Your bags are packed, the car is loaded, and college is calling. You’ve got a dorm to decorate, 24/7 junk food to inhale, and a mythical place where you’ll miraculously find your niche in life that you’re ready to discover.
Too bad your sister is treating you as if you’re simultaneously stabbing her in the back and marching off to death row. Giddy nervousness shifts to survivor’s guilt, and leaving for college becomes something you feel the need to apologize about.
Now deal with the fact that you’re the one who did this to your sister. That I was the one who did this to my sister. Me, the person whose sole wish through the age of six was for a baby sister named Hope; me who has spent my life savagely protecting Hope against all threats, real and perceived. But at the ripe age of 25, I was left dealing with empty nest syndrome, and I wasn’t remotely equipped to handle it.
Leading up to her leaving, I felt as if she were dying instead of moving 90 minutes down the I-95 corridor. My friends tiptoed around me quietly asking if I was OK. Our parents had serious whispered conversations about how we’d cope with the separation.
To say that we are shockingly co-dependent is an understatement. We spent the last ten years of our lives as an ampersand—Katie & Hope, and no matter what else changed around us, that remained a constant. You rarely found one without the other—my friends were hers, and vice versa. We had the easy companionship of best friends and the kind of sibling relationship that parents dream about. She’d give me a look and a whole conversation would pass between us, I’d say one word and she’d fall out of her chair laughing. Even the dull moments sitting around the house on our laptops were a little bit better because we always had each other to share it with.
I’d left her before to go away to college and to study abroad, and it had been difficult, but I’d always been the one doing the leaving. I’d never been left behind before and it felt like being six years old again and being an only child.
Hope didn’t need me (and she probably hadn’t for a long time) to stand between her and the world. For too long I’d acted as a buffer for her and stepping back from that role left me drifting. Admittedly I pulled away from her, begrudgingly thinking that she needed to live her life and she’d contact me if she needed something. When she didn’t consult me or would go days without even an idle text, my uselessness shifted into outright hostility. We had a few rows– she pulled the “I’m 18 years old and I know what I’m doing,” (always false) and I disdainfully laughed in her face a few times. I threw back my age and experience, (sister knows best) and it was her turn to rightfully get pissed off.
It tore me apart and couldn’t have made her adaptation to college too easy either—I fell into a massive sulk, and she developed an ulcer. We’d never fought much before, and not in any lasting way. I could count maybe three epic fights in our past, and this was one of my own making. I had grad school, a new job, and friends—a whole life that didn’t depend on her, but my life’s most definitive role—as Hope’s big sister—felt like it had been stripped away.
We spent her first semester in semi-hostile detente. Christmas break came with a WWI-style truce, mostly because we were back home together and those issues fell by the wayside. Spring semester held less tension, but I spent it planning our summer trip to England, increasingly annoyed by her lack of participation. How was I to believe she was the responsible adult she claimed to be when I couldn’t even rely on her to research where she wanted me to take her? As the trip grew closer, my ire grew, as I was increasingly more nervous about being solely responsible for two 19 year-olds in another country and keeping them healthy, happy, and safe.
When we departed in June, it was readily apparent the trip would either be the impetus we needed to get past the uneasiness of the last year, or if our lives had truly diverged and it was unlikely we would ever be so close again. Arriving at Heathrow, I was in full mom-mode, constantly checking behind me to make sure all my little ducks were in a row, barking out directions, and probably being an overwhelming pain in the ass. And Hope let it go. As the trip progressed, the more stressful the situation, Hope acted as the calming force. She let me be boss when she knew my expertise was needed, and she stepped up when she saw me lagging. It was a brave new world, and not because we were in a foreign country.
On a cliffside in northern Cornwall, it inadvertently came to a head. I was leaning absurdly too far over the edge to get the photograph I wanted. I knew I had my balance and that I would be fine, but right as I inched over a bit farther, she threw out her arm across my chest and stopped me. She mom-armed me.
I swear to God I almost cried.
Which is absurd. She’s always been ferociously protective of me, and we’ve never tolerated anyone else shitting on the other—whether it’s friend, foe, or family. But she’d never looked out for me before, or at least not in a way I’d ever noticed. We’d always been alarmingly co-dependent, but I’d always been the big to her little; it was my job to look out for her. With her at college, I didn’t know how to move our sisterhood into both of us being adults, but in one reflexive move (albeit one she’d been yelling at me about for years), she silently transitioned us.
Looking back on it, it was obvious that I was terrified that if she grew up, I would lose her and be left clinging to the days when I used to be relevant. I should have had more faith– in her, in us, and in myself, and the strength to not let fear dictate my rationality. Not being needed doesn’t imply a lack of value; growing up doesn’t demand growing apart, and sisterhood doesn’t need the distinction between big or little—just an unwavering conviction to always have each other’s back.
We are still shockingly co-dependent. A day doesn’t go by in which we don’t text each other stupid animal gifs. She comes home on weekends and explodes in rants about college drama and asks my advice. Only now when I’m overwhelmed and at my breaking point—I call her too and she calmly listens and either kicks my ass or helps me see what was so obviously in right in front of me.
We’re still Katie & Hope. It’s still a packaged deal. We just take care of each other now.
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