A woman with head bowed looking out over a lake

When to Stop Asking for Forgiveness

The text from my sister began, “I’m having a bad day so don’t respond. I’m going to turn my phone off anyway.” I took a deep breath and braced myself for what was sure to follow. The rest of her text detailed how much I disappointed her, and ended with how “sad” it was that she used to look up to me.

My sister Christine (not her real name) was having a bad day. I could understand that. As my mother’s sole caregiver, she has a lot to deal with. My mother’s multiple sclerosis has left her bedridden, unable to even feed herself. Caring for her is a full-time job, one that Christine has taken on in addition to the full-time job she actually gets paid for.

I also understand that the fact that I’m not in Pittsburgh to help with my mother made me the target of Christine’s bad days. At least once a month, Christine would send a similar message, starting with the latest of my transgressions but evolving into larger issues with me, my personality, my life choices. Then, she wouldn’t talk to me for a few days. For her, the best coping mechanism is to disengage. She’d drop a bomb and then walk away. 

I’m not blameless, I know that. I’m sure there are many times I do or say the wrong thing. Three years ago, at her New Year’s Eve party, I made a joke with my usual dry humor. It was about a bowl of punch, nothing personal, but she screamed at me, then drove off, leaving me with her guests. Twenty minutes later, she called and told me to make everyone leave. When she returned, she fought with her boyfriend and threw him out while I hid in a bedroom. The next morning, I knocked on her door, but she wouldn’t answer. I left.

A month later, she sent cake truffles, my favorite, as an apology. I forgave her without discussion, acting as if nothing happened. I, too, have learned sometimes it’s better to not engage. 

But also, maybe I deserve it. When my father passed away, the question of what to do with our mom seemed to fall on me as the oldest child. Given my lack of capacity or desire to provide the level of care she needed, I began researching facilities. Then my sister offered to take care of our mom. At the time, I questioned her offer: Did she realize how hard it would get? But, then again, she was a nurse who had worked in those facilities. It was one reason, I suppose, that she didn’t want to see our mother in one. 

Because of her decision, I have enormous respect for my sister. She is the better daughter, the better person. It is why I used to go back to Pittsburgh, as often as I could, to give her a break. It is why I almost always resisted reacting to texts like these. Almost. 

This time, as I read it, I wondered what I had said or done, wishing I had a map to her minefield. My memory didn’t have to go further than the call we had just hours earlier when I told her I wanted to visit for our mother’s birthday. I would stay at an Airbnb, I said. That way, I could come over during the day to help with our mother but still give her some space at night. Plus, the arrangement would allow me to bring my dog, Ollie, who was likely to fight with her dog.

During the call, she seemed fine with my plan, but later, by text, she scolded me for making everything about what’s convenient for me, instead of what’s best for our mother. And I should take Ollie for professional training. And I’m a bad pet parent. And so on.

I knew I should put the phone aside, ignore the texts. Eventually, she’d apologize or forget about it. She was having a bad day. 

But this time, so was I. This time, I wrote back. 

“Given the number of angry texts you send me on a regular basis, I must be a constant trigger,” I fired off. “You don’t seem to get along with me or like me. Maybe the best thing for us would be to not talk for a little while.”

It’s been over a year.

I feel terrible about the text. Although I was careful not to criticize her personally, I knew she would feel attacked. I’m the oldest; I’m supposed to know better. She told me not to respond, but I still did. 

But I also wrote what I felt to be true. I have come to realize that her criticisms were less directed at something I said or did and more at me in general. I seem to be a trigger, and the only way to not be one would be to change a lot more than I know how to—or want to. It has taken me a long time to become comfortable with who I am. I don’t need everyone to like me. I have enough people who do. It just saddens me that my sister isn’t one of them.

For over a year, I’ve sent flowers or gifts on every holiday, along with an apology. She hasn’t responded, except for when I sent a half-case of wine for her birthday. She texted to say thanks for the wine but didn’t respond when I asked how she was doing. Every text I’ve sent since hasn’t been delivered. She’s blocked me on social media.

The hardest part is that not speaking to my sister means no updates on my mother, who can’t answer a phone on her own. All paths of communication go through my sister. I don’t know how my mother is doing, other than to assume not well.  And she probably doesn’t understand why I don’t visit. 

For the first six months that Christine stopped talking to me, I was sick with guilt. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop worrying that I might not have another chance to see my mother. Trying to cure my anxiety with cocktails, I purchased enough liquor to stock a bar.

In the next six months, I began a sort of slow, premature mourning. I began processing that I might not see my mother again. I’m learning to accept that this is not a situation I control. I can only control my reaction to it. And by this point, I’ve beaten myself up in more rounds than I can count.  

This past Christmas, I again sent flowers and an apology. I wish to reconcile, but what I really want is for my sister to be happy. I told her that if she’s happier with me out of the picture, then that’s where I’ll be. 

I never heard from her.

Last month, I let Christine’s birthday pass without sending anything. Whether or not she forgives me is her choice. Mine is to stop feeling sad and sorry, begging for forgiveness. This year, I will try to forgive myself.

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