Family Math

At the beginning of my professional career, when I was practicing law at a small […]

Of Missing Persons FAt the beginning of my professional career, when I was practicing law at a small firm in Virginia, the closest I felt to having a vocation was when I counseled families about their estate plans. This was an opportunity for me to educate and empower my clients to make decisions about their financial assets and end-of-life health care options.

Often, at the beginning of those meetings, the clients would tell me in hushed tones that they had a “very unique circumstance.” This usually involved a potential heir — their child, grandchild, niece, or nephew — who was no longer a part of their family’s life, and would not be included in the estate plan. Of course, we handled those issues professionally as part of the overall estate plan, and I think my clients were often relieved when it was not a Huge Hairy Deal, from a financial and legal perspective. I also wanted to assure them, but of course I couldn’t, that their family’s problem was not unusual. In fact, I think we had more “unique” requests like that than not. I wanted to tell them that I, too, had a family member who no longer subscribed to the family newsletter, but that would not have been professional or appropriate in those circumstances. Instead, I could give them whatever peace of mind I could, and finalized their estate plan without comment.

I no longer have those clients, but I do still have a sister-shaped hole in my own story. I have not seen my sister, Michelle*, in almost twenty years. I’m in my late 30s, so I’ve lived without her for longer than I lived with her. On many levels, this is nothing short of tragic. Seen another way, though, her presence in my life added more than her absence has taken away. This weird kind of family math is how I have to look at the situation, so that I don’t get completely drenched in the sadness of it.

Michelle is ten years older than I am. She was everything to me when I was a small child, and she taught me nearly everything that I love doing now: how to swim, how to read, how to play the piano, how to solve math problems, how to give a speech, how to curtsy, how to sing harmony, and how to bake brownies. She was a musical theater phenom in our home town, and I memorized every musical she ever played in. At night, when I couldn’t fall asleep, she’d sing old hymns or new show tunes to me. When she played a role in The Wizard of Oz, she took me on stage afterward to meet the Cowardly Lion. My first bus trip was on a roller skating trip with her junior high friends, and I still remember her lifting me up to touch the roof of the bus. When our great-grandmother, in failing health, visited our home for the last time, Michelle took me outside to go sledding and put on a “show” for the older relatives. After every trip down the hill, she told me to take a bow for the grandmas and aunties watching from inside the warm house. I’m sure she was getting me out of their hair, but I felt like we were on stage at (a very cold and damp) Carnegie Hall that afternoon. When I got homesick at camp, she signed up to be a counselor the next year so she could be with me. If she was bothered when I draped myself all over her high school friends as they played endless rounds of Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit, she didn’t let on. Despite the decade that spanned between us, we were remarkably close.


Because of our age difference, she left for college when I was in third grade. I was devastated. Not long after that, Michelle and my parents had a series of arguments. The source of the conflict does not matter. I’m sure it matters deeply to them, but for the purposes of what I’m about to say, the source of the conflict simply does not matter. There were a few years when my other siblings and I were confused: were we supposed to take sides? Were we in trouble if we did? There was no clear direction, like there might have been in a death or a divorce. There was nobody fighting for custody or arranging for a funeral for this relationship that we were about to bury. Were we burying it? Nobody could tell. Which side of the equation made the most sense? (Answer: None of the Above.)

After several fits and starts by each of us individually, and then I guess all of us collectively, the relationship fizzled even further. When I was in law school, my boyfriend at the time was outraged that we could “let this happen.” He said, “My siblings and I would never let this happen! We’d go make it right.” On what planet, I wondered, was I supposed to go back in time, and as a ten-year-old, play Lone Ranger Peacekeeper with my parents and adult sibling, to force them to hold hands and make up? (Spoiler alert: things never worked out with that boyfriend.) But, as time went on, it become clear, as the song goes, that “it takes two to make a thing go right.” It would take everyone — Michelle included — to want a relationship. No amount of hard work and straight talk would restore what used to be. Even then, I think I knew that it would take more than pulling this relationship up by its bootstraps to fix it. Maybe there’s an opportunity for a new (terrible) worship song here: It Takes Grace To Make a Thing Go Right. All of the conversations and therapy and Real Talk in the world were not making a thing go right.

Michelle has never met my husband, and did not come to my wedding. I didn’t know it until a few months later, but she was having a baby during the week that I was married. I received her Christmas card with a beautiful baby photo on Christmas Eve that year. There were just a few details about our newest family member, and I read the card and gazed at the photo as I was making a casserole for a family at our church who had, just that day, unexpectedly lost their teenaged son. It was all too much to take in at once. Nobody gave me a playbook for this type of situation in law school, or in premarital counseling. How was I supposed to respond?

I responded, of course, with heartfelt congratulations. Was this baby-shaped olive branch going to bring us all back together? I knew, or at least I think I knew, that it wouldn’t be as simple as that. There were a few months of sporadic contact, and then nothing again. The equation continued to mystify me, and all of the teeth-grinding effort in the world was not fixing anything.

There’s a lot talk about reconciliation at our church right now, following the Community of the Cross of Nails at Coventry Cathedral. It’s good work, and it’s important work, and I believe in it. Michelle isn’t always the first person who comes to mind when I think about reconciliation in my own life, but eventually, my mind always wanders back to her. What does reconciliation mean, when one person wants it, and the other is gone? What would I say to her, if she showed up at my doorstep? Does it matter, since she is not at my doorstep?

If she showed up, I’d want to tell her that I love her, but I wouldn’t know how to say it. I’d want to tell her that her leaving hurt, but that it didn’t ruin my life. I’d want to explain to her the weird family math that her presence in my life meant so much more than her absence. I’d tell her that I will always, always leave the door open to her, but that I can’t stand at an open door all day. Reconciliation might just mean walking away from that door for a while, not in anger, but in peace.

When I tell people about Michelle, they often ask if I try to contact her. The answer is yes, and no. I faithfully send her Christmas cards, birth announcements, and moving announcements — those big life event mailings that have a Google spreadsheet to track all of the recipients’ addresses. I want to know that she knows where I am. Our Christmas card list has grown throughout the years, and so when I send out a few hundred holiday greetings, my card to Michelle among them, it doesn’t sting quite so badly as it would if she rejected a targeted, heartfelt letter. It feels risky — that I might be hurt, but it’s a pretty small risk. But there’s still an undeniable tug at my heart when I put those cards in the mail, or when her birthday passes, or when I see her favorite kind of cake in a bakery window. And there’s never an end to the love I have for her, even if I don’t have a way to show it to her right now.

I’ve never wondered if these attempts at contacting her were “wasted.” Is there such a thing as wasted love, even in small token gestures? What if she throws the Christmas cards away, or someone intercepts them before she even receives them? If that happens, and nothing changes in her, the acts of love that I have sent her way — along with the prayer and concern that go along with them — have changed me, even if they haven’t changed her. They’ve kept my love for her alive, even if it’s no longer a two-way street. Her place on my Google address spreadsheet is almost sacramental — a 21st century outward sign of my inward love for her. That place marker is one version of leaving the reconciliation door open, or at least not slamming it shut.

In so many ways, I have to believe that God is holding that door open for us, and holding on to that love for both of us, not on a spreadsheet, but in a deep well of love. Sometimes, I watch my own two sons, even when they don’t know that I’m watching. I’ve seen my older son kiss my sleeping younger son on the head when he’s asleep, and tuck the covers around him. Even though my younger son will never know that he’s been loved in that way, I know it, and so does his big brother. We know that he is loved, and how he is cherished. It makes me feel equally tender toward both of them, and I delight in their love for one another. Michelle may never know that I’m sending her small acts of love, but I do, and I believe God sees it, and hope He delights in it, for both of us.

In this way, our family math doesn’t come to a nice, tidy sum at the end. There is no balanced equation. For all I know, Michelle is dumping loads of love into the same deep, deep well, and God is collecting it there for both of us. There may be nothing that will make this mess of an equation into something satisfying, but I still think it’s worth puzzling through it, sitting in the middle of it, and loving her from within it. God’s love — the Love that died on a cross for me, for Michelle, and for everyone else in the equation — transcends all of this math and meddling and mess. Of this, I am sure.

*Michelle’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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11 responses to “Family Math”

  1. Wow … amazing – honest, heartfelt; thanks

  2. Ken Zintak says:

    If it’s any consolation this kind of family math is probably being worked out in every family. I have working on a family tree project for a few years and while there has been some amazing reconciliation and restored relationship (even new ones!), there has also been much heartbreak and disappointment. All you can do is go forth with grace, mercy, and love in your heart and actions. This project has reconfirmed the sin that affects us and the Savior who saves us.

  3. Becky says:

    I can’t say how very timely it is to be reading this today….I was moved by how your open door and attitude towards your sister may be unknown to her, and may not change circumstances, but that they’ve changed you. That so resonates with me, and makes me think of how forgiveness is the thing which sets us free, even if the other person doesn’t know we’ve forgiven them…. (Or care!) I also reflect on the almost/not yet of your story, and how so much in life doesn’t end in the neat story arcs of a 30 minute Amazon prime serial, but how it’s complicated and messy, and sometimes all you can do is sit in it, and accept the imperfections. Thank you.

  4. Rita Lee says:

    I’m deeply moved by this math equation. I recently and finally gave up. My sister, who is an alcoholic, and has a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis (but doesn’t believe in medicine), believes her many hardships (many more) are a function of our upbringing (same parents). She is only four years older than me and was not a role model and often stuck me in a closet saying she hated me and drew a line to separate our space in our bedroom. I’ve tried for over sixty years to be her friend and sister. Her response is, just because you’re my sister doesn’t mean you’re my friend. I still do the generic Christmas card and birthday wish. But I walked away. She’ll never call. I always did but stopped. It only made me feel ridiculed. She’ll never drop by and my door is open. I do pray for her. No one has replaced my sister because I don’t know what a true loving sister relationship should resemble. But in my family equation, there is a less one. Her anger w me has also subtracted her two children’s family. They use to be a big part of my life, especially during the holiday seasons. Her children rarely communicate w her, so I don’t feel scorned but estranged. Again my door is open for them. I imagining the death of this sibling would be unbearable but not missed. Because there is nothing there.

  5. Joanne Polansky says:

    This was beautiful. And sad.

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