There is a superstition that famous people die in threes. After the first two celebrity deaths are announced, the question is breathlessly asked, who is next? I have come to believe that when crisis strikes, it too, comes in threes. When the most powerful earthquake since records began struck Japan the result was a crisis but when it triggered a tsunami that caused the meltdown of multiple nuclear reactors along the coast, a true feeling of despair swept over the nation. The devastation seemed too great to overcome.
After Ed’s surgery, an infection set in that required more surgery and dramatic treatments to save his life, the family struggled against feeling overwhelmed. But as the weeks progressed, Ed’s health improved and mom too started to recover both mentally and physically. Julia and I decided to return home vowing to spend more time with our mom and brother in the future.
We were not home 24 hours when the call came. Mom was in the hospital. It appeared she had had a stroke. She was awake but was coming in and out of consciousness. This was déjà vu all over again. Seven years earlier, my father had a stroke and the decision was made to hold off calling the out of town family. Dad had entered the hospital awake but was going in and out of consciousness. By the time the decision was made to call everyone, Dad had slipped into a coma. He died three days later never regaining consciousness. Guilt and regret still needlessly surrounds the decision to wait for more information before telephoning remote family members. Nobody was going to make that mistake again. Calls were made immediately and everyone quickly put travel plans in place.
I have always been fascinated by birth order and gender studies. I would read them like one does the morning horoscopes, looking for anything positive that applied to me. Growing up Ed and I were very close with me being the bossy older sister. As adults, Ed and Julia became closer. Julia and I are close too. But Ed and I have been distant for many years. Julia has been, the peacemaker, the glue between the siblings.
After Ed's open-heart surgery, Julia and I took on very specific roles in the family. I would come into my brother’s room and immediately give him an update on his progress. I believed it was vital that we kept Ed connected to this world and while he was sedated, I believed on some level he could understand what I was saying. I told Ed the date and time and explained to him that he had done well during surgery and that his job now was to give into the drugs and get well. I would not allow anyone to discuss or say anything negative in front of him.
Julia, on the other hand, could not speak to him without the fear of breaking down into tears but she could intelligently discuss with his doctors and nurses his condition. I would stand on the periphery of the room listening as they discussed his medical care and future lifestyle changes. This “role reversal” surprised me. The bossy older sister stepped back while the baby of the family interacted with the “authorities”.
During the recovery period after his surgery, Ed said, whenever he opened his eyes and looked at me, he saw a halo. Ed was amazed and a bit in awe of my halo. He told everyone that came into the room that I was an angel. I was, on the other hand, amazed that Ed would see a halo on me! Our relationship had been strained for most of our adult years and to be anointed even in a drug induced hallucination surprised me. Remarkably it did allow the two of us to change old behaviors.
What I witnessed during this family emergency was the breaking down of preconceived notions of each individual’s role in the family. My sister was no longer the peacemaker who worked hard to make everyone get along; she became the tenacious medical advocate for my brother. My brother, who for years fought for dominance in the family because he was male, now stood back and respectfully allowed his sisters to make decisions on behalf of the family as he worked to heal. My role as big sister became one of comforter and peacemaker, a role traditionally held by my sister.
What transpired was our ability to morph and evolve as individuals and family members. The real and frightening health crisis required us to put aside our petty childish games and work as a team, as a family for the greater good. I am not saying that in our complete exhaustion at managing the long days, bad diets and the ups and downs of healing that we didn’t snap at one another. What I am saying is that when we did snap, we were met with understanding and forgiveness.
I do know that we are lucky. Crisis like these make many families break apart and in some cases they never speak to one another again. But what I have learned from our own family drama is that if you can come from a place of love, healing is possible. Not only the healing of the body but also the healing of the fractures in a family relationship that were caused by gender and birth order.