Each time my 10-year-old sister calls me, I jump a little. She’s not old enough to have a cell phone, I think, and I hope that it’s going to be a casual conversation. Usually, she tells me about her essay assignments, asks me to clarify certain points of Greek history and geometry, and complains about our little brother. Most nights, our mother is still coming home late.
Instinctively, I want to be there. I’m nostalgic for nights spent procrastinating my AP homework by telling stories in the dark before bedtime. For so long, it was my privilege to establish “would-you-rather” as the most fun way to annoy our parents at the dinner table. I was the judge of talent shows, a terrible impromptu soccer goalie, and a carefully curated encyclopedia of inappropriate knowledge. Parents may be structural, vital sources of developing emotional attachments, but siblings feel like the first people who choose to infinitely love you. As an older sister, I feel a deep obligation to continuously shape and support the six branches of my family tree that I helped to grow.
“Sistering” is one of the most basic and fundamental pieces of my identity. Across campus, I’m sure this sentiment is shared by many siblings who have also left little ones back at home. In college, our familial identity doesn’t simply disappear—it must, however, be redefined. We have to remember that relationships built on love are both pliable and vigorous. They develop, resilient or not, in response to what we feed them. They can grow across immeasurable distances, and sustain themselves on healthy communication.
Until my sister called that day, I had been looking for internships and research opportunities in California and abroad. As I fantasized about an unknown future, my attention had been floating in and out of the classroom. Columbia inevitably enhances the value we put on our plans, achievements, and independence. For me, this illusory independence was suffocated under the pressure of one brief, virtual conversation. How was I supposed to think about a future life so far away from these wonderful kids—much farther than the 100 miles that already seemed to stretch endlessly between us?
Across the airwaves, my sister tells me that her dad is getting angrier with them, which worries me. Apparently, his new girlfriend has also started burning sage in their house to “get rid of the bad stuff.” I immediately start to search for bus tickets back home, but my sister laughs loudly and genuinely. I remember that I taught her to be strong, smart, and self-assured. In all likelihood, she will handle this with a confidence that—even with Ivy-Leaguer status—I envy today. Still, I can’t help but wonder: How can I pursue this bright and shiny future in good conscience, when it means leaving the people I love behind?
Technically, I don’t have to choose, but sometimes this seemingly tangential involvement is much more painful than dissociating from their lives entirely. When I am on campus, I can feel myself shifting into a product of my environment: hyper-focused and goal-oriented. In a manicured bullet journal, I approach “lunch with friends” with the same calculated checkmark as “cell neuroscience problem set.” This does not mean I find it easy to forget my lifelong commitment to being an older sister. This responsibility permeates—around, above, between, and through every page. However, it is undeniably easier to check off my pretty little boxes when I push the guilt-ridden task of “sistering” into subtext.
Being a sibling means maintaining a bond that is often deeper than one with friends, yet less hierarchical than one with parents. It is about anticipating, understanding, and addressing each other’s needs. There is a different and equally important process of relationship maintenance for each of my six siblings—I call my older sister at least twice a week to check in on her, but I’m lucky if my three-year-old brother jumps in my dad’s FaceTime screen to tell me what he’s eating. I can’t tell you how to maintain these relationships in your own lives; I can just tell you that strengthening them on a campus that already demands an inordinate amount of emotional labor requires immense willpower and flexibility.
The day after our weekly phone call, my sister called me again during a meeting. She wanted to talk about a piece she is writing and the likelihood that ghosts are, in fact, real. For a split second, I was tempted to ditch; during the summer, I would have sat next to her bed, working on my laptop while she prattled on and on. Now, my heart still sinks a little when I can barely spare five minutes to say, “I’ll read your story tonight. Can I call you tomorrow?”
I choose not to say, “I hope you can forgive me for missing your softball games, for not taking you apple picking this year, for the hug deficit I have left behind.” It is counterproductive to apologize for changing a relationship that requires movement to stay healthy—it only magnifies feelings of guilt, and creates division. Finding useful and practical ways to demonstrate love from a distance is a much better way to fortify these bonds. So, I will pick up that “women in science” notebook I saw in the window of Book Culture to take home for her at Thanksgiving, and remind myself to keep transportation to Philadelphia in mind as I look forward to the future.
The author is a junior studying neuroscience and English at Barnard College. When she’s not editing for the Spectator’s opinion section, you can probably find her on Low Steps, tearing up as she wistfully watches toddlers (in animal hats!) pass by. She would love to hear your angsty and/or cute sibling stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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