Growing up, I had loving parents — parents who were always there for me and cooked family dinners, parents who drove me to swim lessons and soccer games and parents who made sure I did my homework.
My older sister did not have these parents.
At least, not in her recollection of our childhood. In her memories, our parents were absent, constantly working to provide us a safe and secure home but unintentionally forcing my sister to grow up much faster than she should have. In her memories, she was responsible for giving me dinner half the time, and her hobbies fell by the wayside.
I don’t know if that’s true. It’s certainly not how I remember it, but none of us are reliable narrators. Perhaps my sister and I were too young to remember correctly. Perhaps my parents painted their memories with a bright brush to cover their parental guilt. Perhaps we are all just looking for excuses to justify our actions in the present. It makes me wonder — does it need to be true?
Regardless of whether her experiences can be verified, as a child, my sister felt abandoned; she felt as though she was responsible for me, her baby sister, from a very young age. Isn’t that sense of a lost childhood real, regardless of the facts?
A decade later, I have to wonder if my sister feels that same sense of abandonment again. Though my sister and I were raised in the same house with the same parents in the same Chicago suburb, our childhoods were immeasurably different. I have to wonder if that is what made us so different or if it was inevitable from the beginning that our life paths would split so drastically.
My sister is homeless. She travels around, working on weed farms, selling crafts or nannying for friends, often staying in the wilderness or in an off-the-grid community, sometimes out of a friend’s car. My sister is homeless, but it’s OK because she wants to be.
As I was entering college, my sister decided to drop out. We sort of assumed she would go back at some point, but she hasn’t. At first, I didn’t care. But as time went on and communication became less and less frequent, I worried about her constantly. I thought she was lost, addicted to drugs, freezing to death or some awful combination of the three. Luckily for me, my sister is also a mooch, so now I can keep track of her by seeing how often she uses my Spotify account.
I was angry at her for a long time. I thought she was ungrateful — isn’t the height of privilege being able to choose poverty? Our parents worked hard to give us the chance to go to college, and I felt like she threw it all away. I thought she was just lazy and wanted to be able to drink and do drugs all day.
Then, I went through a stage where I believed I had to look out for her. Thus, the Spotify account: I thought letting her use it would ensure she was obliged to continue speaking to me. Whenever she would end up in Berkeley, I’d buy her food, force her to shower at my place and always offer her a bed, which she almost never accepted. I felt like I was playing the traditional role of the older sister — a vacancy that was never filled in my family, as my sister was never very protective of me.
Somewhere spanning these stages in my relationship with my sister was the looming presence of her relationships with men. Her boyfriends, travel buddies, whatever you want to call them were always and invariably creepy. One dude had meth teeth and told our parents he was 24 when he was really in his 30s (my sister was 21 at the time). They were always way too personal with me and drank way too much.
They were half the reason I was angry with and then concerned for my sister. Angry, because they didn’t respect my boundaries and made me uncomfortable in my home. Concerned, for the same reasons.
After Meth-Teeth Danny, it seemed my sister had learned her lesson. At the very least, she doesn’t bring them home for Christmas anymore. Her last travel buddy I met was delightful, and her new dog is very protective, which is reassuring.
Now, I have just learned to accept that not everyone takes the same path as I do. College made my sister depressed and anxious. Now she’s happy. Honestly, it’s more than I can say for myself.
Maybe my sister has it right. Maybe the way to go is to abandon your responsibilities, get a dog, and trek it around the American Southwest. At the end of the day, my sister is selfish. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s not evil to look after yourself and your mental health. It’s a lesson that she is trying to teach me and that I’m still trying to learn.