Monday 14 March 2016

Losing a Big Sister

Priscilla Lynn (Shepheard) Pettitt

I lost my big sister last week. Lynn was here when the other children in my family arrived and occupied a very important part of our lives. I suppose any one of us could have been the first. Only an accidental combination of chromosomes resulted in her coming along before the rest of us.

Things work out the way they are supposed to, though. As the oldest she merrily led the way into all of our futures – when we felt like following her. She walked first; she talked first; she went to and finished school first; got married and had children first.

When I was saying good bye to her last week I of course got thinking about how I could explain why she was so special to me.

Something came to my mind that our mother used to say – generally when one of us kids let our sense of self-importance rise a little too high. She told us that, “You were all cut from the same piece of cloth!”

The same piece of cloth! That matter-of-fact statement was a reminder that no one’s self-interest was supposed to be greater than the others’.

The first time I heard Mom say that, as a little guy, I didn’t totally understand what she was talking about. And I wasn’t sure what kind of fabric she meant. I figured it must have to do with having the same parents but that’s where the analogy stopped. I had this image in my mind of a cookie-cutter, punching out identical gingerbread men from rolled-out dough or scissors cutting a people chain out of folded paper. Both produce a bunch of lookalike individuals. I do remember it was not a real appealing thought at the time. I mean, I didn’t want to look or be like my sisters for goodness sake.

I did learn that this particular cloth we were cut from had the ability to maintain itself and stay fresh, so other pieces could be cut from it later – in total five times in our case. But the pieces never were really totally separated. Not all of the threads were completely severed even though each of us stood apart.

What I have also come to appreciate over the years is that, while our origins were the same, this piece of cloth was a kind of magical fabric that allowed a wide range of individual personalities to develop and yet still have them share so much – things like some physical traits, of course, and some emotional ones too I guess: stubbornness, single-mindedness and quick tempers on occasion come to mind. Or so I have been told. Lynn also had that amazing quality of always being upbeat and positive which is pretty important for the oldest sibling when you think about it but difficult for the others to always match.

Through the nurturing of our parents we developed a set of values – among them, exhibiting good behaviour and respect for others, for example – not always easy in practice. With those early admonitions, Mom was really telling us that those important qualities were imbued in that special cloth we were made of. That was so because the pieces of cloth she and Dad had been cut from possessed certain virtues, and what they created together would also contain them.

Our parents allowed, or perhaps resigned themselves to expect that we would make mistakes along the way while developing our own personas and individualities. That happens because of what threads that fabric is made of – mystical elements that allow individuals to become so different in so many ways but still be made of similar stuff. As it turned out my sisters and I could probably not have been more different – and yet alike, too, in many ways!

Lynn encountered difficulties along the way, as most people do, not the least of which were serious health problems. She never let any of them get her down for long, though. Her positive attitude got her through all the low points. Her cheery disposition was a model for the rest of us – one perhaps we did not always take to heart or recognize were also in our pieces of the cloth as well.

Lynn and her husband, Roy went on to fabricate their own piece of cloth, something I know that had many of the same attributes she had. As I look at my nephews now, and how they conduct themselves, I know it was an admirable piece of material.

Siblings have a unique bond which is primarily due to the distinctiveness of their origin – coming from the same piece of cloth – but enriched by the love and care of their parents. No matter what else happens in life, or even how irritated one might get with a sibling at times, there is an exclusive, irreplaceable and unbreakable relationship – often whether we like it or not. What we learn about social interaction begins between siblings, not all of it positive sometimes. Things don’t always run smooth between people this close.

The bond I had with my big sister was always very strong. She and I were born in the same month of the year – November – which gave us another reason to be close. I mean, everyone knows how special Scorpios are!

Siblings share beginnings and upbringing for only a short time – then make their own way – enjoying good times and enduring bad ones. We all grow up expecting certain things will happen, that our parents will be there to help us along for a while but eventually they will be gone, as happened with their parents. Then we’ll continue along our own paths, responsible for our own needs and chasing our own dreams.

We don’t really give a lot of thought to whether one of us might be lost along the way – until it happens!

We were all very young when our little brother, Jimmy died. It didn’t seem right but we hadn’t had a lot of time to develop really close ties and share a great many experiences together. He was only two at the time. We also hadn’t learned what being brothers and sisters really was all about. In a short time our little sister, Janice, came along and our world went back to being normal and in proper order again.

As time went by, each of us progressed in life, building other relationships, experiencing events personal to ourselves, producing our own unique pieces of cloth from which our children were cut – but still maintaining a contact with each other; because we were still connected by the threads of that worn yet still durable piece of material. We didn’t see or phone each other as much as we might or should have. We never thought we had to in order to maintain a close relationship. That did not mean our piece of cloth was not still intact, though.

The distances between us didn’t really matter although as you get older you seem to be less inclined to make even a short trip. When we did get together we enjoyed the occasions, catching up on news, having a laugh with and about each other – especially when Lynn was part of the group and she was doing the cooking.

It’s a big shock when a sibling dies, especially someone that has been there throughout your entire lifetime. It can also be a stark reminder of your own mortality. While driving home, after our last visit with Lynn, my sister, Sharon, said to me, “When someone has been around for so long, you just take it for granted they will continue to be there.”

When you lose a sibling, it’s like your piece of the same fabric from which you both were cut has been torn, too. And it hurts!

In one instant you see and remember everything you shared together – over 70 years in my case. Two lifetimes, separate but intertwined. We survive – with a small hole in our hearts. But also with much joy as well – for having been part of a family, for having been part of one special piece of cloth.

Not everyone is so lucky to be able, as siblings do, to share happiness, sadness, elation, pride, tribulation, frustration, friendship, exasperation, disagreements, grief – in other words – a full life. Siblings have that ability to combine the best and worst and just go on, never losing touch entirely but never having to always be in touch completely.

We did not always remember to phone each other on our birthdays, for instance, but we did not forget them.

I won’t forget Lynn in the future either. I know there will always exist that special piece of cloth from which we were cut, that connected us in life and that will continue to keep me close toher in spirit and with great memories.