I didn't know my sister Renee very well. She was born six years after me, a gap that always seemed challenging to traverse. The older I got, the more I resented having to baby-sit my kid sister. After all, I was a teenage boy, consumed by my own ego, lacking empathy, focused only on my needs.
I went away to college, happy to escape a home besieged by an anger that was fueled by drink. During breaks, I would work, stay out late, eventually developing my own brand of drink-fueled anger and self-absorption.
At 19, Renee fell in love a kid from the church and moved away with him to Florida. I suppose escape was one thing we had in common back then.
We both married..too young as it would ultimately play out. We exchanged greeting cards and occasional calls, perhaps more obligatory than anything of depth. I was too caught up in my life, my career to have anything more than an obligatory relationship with a sister I hardly knew.
We shared each other's pain as well. I didn't make it to the christening of her first daughter, Ashley. But I was with Renee four months later, when she buried Ashley, the victim of SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It was the most gut-wrenching experience of my life to watch my sister try to make sense out of something so tragic, so mysterious. I remember reading once of a Buddhist monk, an evolved being, losing a young son to a rare disease. One of his devotees reminded the monk of his teachings that death, like life, is simply an illusion. To which the monk replied: "Yes, but the death of a child is the ultimate illusion." Indeed.
Almost nine months to the day after losing Ashley, my niece Whitney was born. Several years later, my nephew Gregory. And my son had cousins on my side of the family. And, in a strange way, the kids brought us closer, made us more of a family. The kids gave us something in common, a reason to call, to share triumphs and tribulations.
I traveled to West Palm Beach on this Journey, to visit my sister, to experience her children. Whitney is heading to medical school. Gregory is a firefighter. My kid sister, the little girl who I barely knew, who was often an afterthought in my life, who experienced pain that I can never imagine, has created an exceptional life for herself. She was able to fight off the demons that consumed her mother, the love of her life.
I was only supposed to spend one evening with Renee. I planned it that way. I didn't want to intrude, to force the "brother-sister" dynamic that, in earlier days, was often uncomfortable. As soon as I arrived, I regretted my decision to stay one night, as I found myself consumed by a desire to be with my family, a family I really never knew. When I called Greyhound to make my reservation for the next leg of the trip, I discovered that the bus was sold out and I'd need to wait an extra day.
It was a wonderful extra day.