It was past midnight, and I sat in an office chair, bent over my laptop.
The walls of my Dallas Marriott room were thin; I heard shouts and laughter from my fellow staff members in the room next door. I tried to concentrate on my assignment at hand: to write a column, presumably about anything personal, and have it ready for my writing class the next morning.
I had known what I was going to write about even before my teacher had assigned the column. This assignment just gave me an excuse to write the story I’d been putting off for some time: a sentimental goodbye column to my sister, one that would celebrate the times we’d had. I blocked out the clamor coming from the other side of the wall, and started to type my story.
I began my story by describing in detail a scene with me looking at an old photo of my sister and me hiking in Colorado when we were younger. I didn’t identify my sister right away. I wrote:
I can’t get over it. It just doesn’t seem right. That girl can’t be leaving.
I was just starting to like my step-sister.
Just the opening I wanted. Already satisfied, I continued writing, my fingers dancing on the keyboard of my Dell laptop.
Sliding on polished hardwood floors with our underwear capping our heads.
Watching all 243 episodes of “Friends” together on our silky couch in the basement.
Building elaborate basement forts together out of blankets, VHS tapes, and whatever furniture we could find.
I was in the zone. Entire sentences were just flowing onto the page. My story was coming together just the way I wanted it. That is, until I hit the next paragraph.
These were all good memories. But there were bad ones, too.
I paused. The last sentence didn’t exactly fit with the type of column that I wanted to write. But the more I thought about it, the more true that statement seemed. After all, Alex and I hadn’t been as close in the last few years as we had when we were kids. After a moment of consideration, I decided to go with my current stream of thought.
I made a list of all the things that divided us over the years.
The time we spent apart when our parents separated.
When she started spending most of her time in high school at her mom’s house.
The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that we weren’t as close as I had thought. Even in our best times, we hadn’t developed a close relationship. Watching 243 episodes of Friends doesn’t develop a close relationship between two people. It develops a love of Friends. When your fondest memory with someone is watching TV together, how close can you be with them?
As I came to grips with my shocking realization, I put my thoughts on the page:
But as I sit on the cold floor of the office, one thought nags at me: I never knew Alex. I could never get a feel for who she was. I’ve spent my whole life in the same Prairie Village house with her, but she could almost be a stranger to me.
I sat back and read my last paragraph again. The truth seemed so clear to me when written in my story. How had I never seen it before? Seeking answers that can only be found through finishing my story, I continued writing.
When we asked her about school, she’d share very little. When we asked her about boys, she would share even less. Something tells me she’s not always like this. She isn’t so restrained and cautious around her friends, the ones I’ve never met. From Facebook photos, occasional stories she gives us of her exploits, and the rare character-revealing comment, I’ve seen another side of her.
I just wish I could see that side more.
Maybe I would know more about her had she gone to the same schools as I attended. Or if our parents hadn’t separated. Or if she was my biological sister.
But these are all just excuses that mask the true reason why I don’t feel like I know the true Alex Christian: I just didn’t care enough about her.
I finally stop writing. I can’t believe what I’m writing is true. But it’s been true for so long. Writing it down just helps me see what I’ve been ignoring.
There. I said it. And sitting in that office, I realize this.
And sitting in that empty hotel room, I realized this. I resumed writing, winding up the column that was so far from what I had expected to write.
I make a decision. I’m going to make it up to my sister. For her remaining time, we will be closer than we’ve ever been in the past. It’s a realization that I think many younger siblings have in the waning months of their older sibling’s time before college. Siblings may fight all their life together, but when the time comes around for that life to end, we finally realize how much we care.
I drop the picture and rise from the floor. As I walk up the stairs to my room, I take out my iPhone.
Hey sis. What are you doing today?
Two weeks later, back in Kansas City, I dropped my Dell in my sister’s lap, opened up my story on a Word document, and left her to read. At the bottom, I left this note:
Hey, I know this isn’t what you expected, but I thought that this could be the start of a renewed, much closer relationship between us. This is my official olive branch, extended to you sis; please accept it.
20 minutes later, I got a text from Alex Christian.
Come up here.
I excused myself from the dinner table and scampered up the stairs and into my sister’s room. She set my laptop down on her desk.
“Read it,” was all she said, and she left the room.
At the bottom of the page, she wrote much more:
You have no idea how much you even writing this article means to me. I know we haven’t been as close as we could have been, and I take the majority of the blame for that, but you have to know I enjoyed all the time we have spent together over the years and feel extremely blessed that I have such a unique, caring, smart, and funny brother like you. And that’s what you are, my brother. I really do hope that we can continue to grow closer over the years because I never want to lose my relationship with you. I accept bro, I love you a lot. And thank you.
I moved Alex into her dorm at Texas Christian University two days before my junior year started. It had been a few weeks since I showed her my story. On the surface, not much has changed in our relationship. But between us there is now a mutual respect. A bond that is felt, not seen or heard.
When I left her under the hot Texas sun, I left a sister, not a stranger.