Today, March 4, 2020, would have been my sister’s 70th birthday. Renee Woodward Foote was my only biological sister before she died from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) on July 17, 2011 at age 61 (my current age). My niece Nia and I gathered around Renee’s bed in Burbank, CA for her birthday in 2011 four months before her death.
It was a Joy to celebrate all together and embracing every moment. We told old family stories, laughed as if there was no tomorrow and ate the carrot cake cupcake we had sneaked into the nursing home for her!! We sang happy birthday which I recorded and still listen to on occasion. My sister could speak very little at that point, yet she said “YAY” at the end of our song. I think we all knew that it would be my sister’s last birthday and I tried to leave nothing unsaid during that visit. I flew cross country to Burbank again that July and told her how much I loved her. She told me how proud she was of the great job I was doing caring for our Mom. I was at her bedside with Nia when she died.
Renee and I had a very complicated relationship, beginning with my birth and my father’s departure from our family both of which happened fairly close together. Renee was two months shy of her 9th birthday when I was born and as a kid who believed that our parents had a perfect relationship, she blamed my birth as the reason our father left us.
By the time we learned the real reason for our father’s departure more than 30 years later, our relationship had been fairly non-existent. Renee and I saw each other for short visits and gift-opening each Christmas, but rarely celebrated birthdays together unless it was for our Mom. We never called each other unless someone was sick or dying and we definitely didn’t hang out together. That all changed when I made one last effort to forge a relationship with Renee by taking her on a cruise for her 50th birthday. It was her first and only cruise and we had the time of our lives! After the cruise we began monthly sister dates and we were loving our times together until the first signs of her illness began to appear in mid-2005, beginning the long saga towards the MS diagnosis around 2007. It was a devastating diagnosis especially since our Mom had been diagnosed with dementia in 2006. I wanted to do everything to help my sister so I began participating in MS 2-Day 50K marathons for her to raise money for a cure, participating in seven of them! I walked most of them alone, but in 2012 Nia and her Aunt Melanie and my awesome friend Jan did the marathon with me!
I was crushed when Renee died, and felt as though we’d been robbed of a great relationship that was just starting to become a real Sisterhood. I miss our sister dates in spite of the fact that we were only able to do them for about 18 months before MS invaded our lives. I hate the fact that Renee never got to meet her amazing grandchildren or to see what an incredible mother Nia is. I especially hate that she won’t be there for Nia’s wedding later this summer.
I have to admit that even before Renee’s death my need for Sisterhood was very strong, actually almost overwhelming. That overwhelming need stemmed from the fact that I spent the first half of my life feeling as if my sister didn’t love me – and given that I’d never met my father I needed someone besides my Mom to love me and to be there for me. I most definitely have serious abandonment issues from my childhood. I began to choose my own Sisters – the women with whom I’ve built deep bonds that have been in existence for more than 25 years… They are from my high school (Kathi), my early work life (Kris and Linda), and my personal life (Wendi and my Cha Cha sisters – Mary, Blanca, Emily, Millie, Rose and Sonia).
I’ve also built some amazing relationships with women from my church life and my Alzheimer’s sisters who are caring for someone with the disease, some of whom I’ve never even met in person but love just the same. Those lists are too long to name everyone, but they know who they are! I have two cousins in the D.C area as well and I’m thrilled that we’ve started to have frequent lunches or dinners which would make our relatives who are no longer here very happy.
Though many of my relationships are great, particularly at church, I still longed for deeper connection with other women, connections that involve more than asking “how ya doing?” while still moving toward another destination before listening to their entire response. I’d like to sit down in a comfy chair with other women and talk about our careers, our vacations or bucket lists, our greatest fears (as I get older my list of fears about the future grow longer), and our deepest sorrows and greatest joys! I signed up for a Sisterhood class at church for no other reason than the title! We’ve completed two weeks of the five week class so far and it has already been incredibly beneficial. Great relationships are being formed between class members and there’s even homework that involves meeting outside of class with a different partner each week. Taking this class is one of the most important and meaningful things I could have done for myself!!
Do you have a Sisterhood (or Brotherhood) that you can count on? Who are the “go to” people in your village? My village involves people who will listen when I talk about how much I miss Tim and my sister and how hard it can be to be a caregiver to someone with dementia. It can be incredibly difficult to allow ourselves to be open, authentic and vulnerable with new people we’re trying to form a relationship with. But don’t let fear or unnecessary worry stop you from forming that Sisterhood that could change your life! You are worth the effort and deserve that Sister you can choose for yourself. My biological sister would be proud of the women who now help to carry me through life after she no longer could! To all of the Sisters in my life, I love you from the bottom of my heart!