Last Wednesday, my sister celebrated her 77th birthday. This is the alpha of my father’s children, the Doyen* of the clan. She, like most of my siblings, holds something of my father that I will never have, beyond name and parentage, they have clear adult memories of him. They get to be the ones who remember what he felt like in his corporeal form, what his laughter sounded like- a shower or a shout, guttural or like a wind bag letting out air. What the sound of frustration in his voice felt like; what it was like to look at him and know that he could see you.
I don’t talk about my father often. He, like my mother’s age, exists somewhere between trapped doors. I always wonder if it’s better this way. Do I really want to know the sound of my father’s laughter? Is it easier to speculate what his favorite shoes looked like. Or the sound my name in his mouth, affectionately cooing at his last living child.
I also don’t talk about my father’s children often. Mostly because I don’t know them, and the last time I saw my eldest sister was almost two years ago. On the day before I left Liberia (cuz Ebola), I spent the afternoon with her and her husband. Prior to this encounter I hadn’t seen her in about 18 years. That was enough time for me to check the boxes- finish high school, graduate college, get multiple jobs, get engaged, and begin graduate school (find a therapist, develop an allergy to shiitake mushrooms, the usual adult stuff).
On a beautiful Tuesday, after I had said my goodbyes to my Internship we (My other sister, my mom’s daughter, the Deaconess**) went to see the Doyen. In retrospect the tragic humor of our reunion mirrored the first time I saw my father’s son on my first full day in Liberia. A bit jet lagged I went with my brother-in-law looking for my father’s namesake. He, like my father, is a Lawyer and when he walked through the doors of his law office, and a ghost stood in front of me, I had to pinch myself.
Flash forward to my last full day in country, and there I am, sitting in front of the first of us staring into the eyes of my father. We sat in her large dining room area with her husband ,and, friends who would appear out of nowhere and linger. My sisters, two caramel colored full figured women sitting across from one another, while I, the mahogany colored one, wringed my hands and smiled broadly like a lost child. At a quick glance you would think they were sister (and they are, and they aren’t). The Doyen and the Deaconess, two formidable women, linked by the blood which courses through me.
During the visit the Doyen asked if I remembered her children’s children’s children (whom I’d never met). Asked if I spoke to my nieces and nephews, asked if I remembered North Carolina; how can one forget such a place, such people. She asked about school, about the person I was engaged to, and even honored me with a blessing (oh joy!). The entire afternoon, I thought, how strange to be sitting across from the person who took me across an ocean. A strange familiarity creeping into my bones. She, after all, was my family; she gave me a chance to check all the boxes, she got me across the ocean. And yet, what was left unsaid lingered, gnawing at me- like the questions I ask myself in the dark.
Estranged is a funny word. It implies that there was a closeness in affection for the other person. I feel more alienated than estranged, more apathy than affection, more longing than validation from my sister, the Doyen. Her family, her life, exists and I am not a part of that.
The truth, like defining love for yourself or family, is a melody beyond comprehension, a feeling that I’m not sure hurts more or less with time.
*I’m using the term Doyen to express a hierarchy which exists in my mind. The Doyen is defined as the most respected or prominent person in a particular field (MerriamWebster.com) Since my sister is the oldest, and the first of my father’s children, she is the embodiment of that stature.
**The Deaconess is a play mane given to my mother’s first daughter. She is very religious, and stern (yet loving, and secretively chatty). If church was a pastime, it would be her favorite.