Growing up, I didn’t have any sisters. I was born smack dab in the middle of two brothers, and while I loved hanging around with the guys, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally yearn for another girl in the family. Someone who could dance around the room with me, burrow through my mom’s makeup stash with me and, yes, gossip about boys with me.
So when my mom introduced my brothers and my 12-year-old self to the man she was dating — who happened to have two daughters who were 5 and 9 years old — I was stoked. I had hit the jackpot. I wasn’t getting just one girl to hang out with, but two. I even remember meeting them for the first time. We went to see Monsters, Inc. in theaters, and as we walked across the street to McDonald’s for vanilla ice cream afterward, we all linked arms and told each other, “I wish you were my sister.”
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Less than a year later, that wish came true. My mom married my now step-dad, and all of us kids bonded as well as any combined family could. We went on family vacations together, played sports together, and held concerts in our bedrooms — makeshift microphones (hairbrushes) and strobe lights (flashlights) included.
I wish I could say that family dynamic lasted. As we got older, we started to drift apart. Not in a serious way at first, just in a “we’re all in different life stages” kind of way. But then hostility started to creep in — my youngest step-sister began saying negative things about my mom, her three kids (myself included), and my step-dad. Her mother fueled the fire, telling lies about their divorce and manipulating stories so they would play out in her favor. But the lies were so absurdly off-base that it was difficult to believe anyone — especially her own daughter — would believe them. It constantly felt like his ex-wife was trying to “win the divorce,” regardless of how it affected his future relationship with his daughters.
As the years passed, I hoped things would settle down and the situation would resolve itself. I told myself it was just her teenage angst — a phase she had to go through, but would eventually get over. After all, my other step-sister had gone through something similar — less extreme, but similar — and she grew up, learned how to tell the difference between fact and her mother’s fiction, and reconciled her relationship with her dad. But my youngest sister just developed more anger toward our family. And when hard drugs and alcohol entered the picture, things got even worse.
When it came time to plan my wedding, I knew she wouldn’t be on the guest list.
By the time Father’s Day 2012 rolled around, the final line was crossed. She called my step-dad up right after he finished walking for 24 hours to raise money for the American Cancer Society in their annual Relay for Life. I remember seeing him, the mix of exhaustion and joy coursing through him, as he picked up the phone — and the immediate look of pain that crossed his face as he listened to the teenager on the other end. She didn’t call to wish him a Happy Father’s Day, or even to see how his fundraiser went. She called, instead, to tell him that he was a terrible father and was never there for her, despite his constant child support payments, attendance at soccer games, and phone calls to try and bridge the gap between them. I didn’t learn of what had been said until later that day, but I’ll never forget the crestfallen look on his face as she spoke to this good, kind, respectable man. It was the physical manifestation of a man’s — no, a father’s — heart breaking into a million pieces. And it was then that I knew I wouldn’t be giving my step-sister any more chances.
That was five years ago, and I haven’t spoken with her since. So when it came time to plan my wedding to a man who hadn’t even met this sister, I knew she wouldn’t be on the guest list. All of my other siblings were included, of course, and my other step-sister, an artist, even partnered with my step-dad, a woodworker, to create beautiful signage and various pieces of artwork to be on display throughout my ceremony and reception.
But as I got ready for a private, first-look moment with my step-dad, a small twinge of sadness hit me when I spotted my other step-sister walking across the grass to her seat. It was very brief, but for a moment I wondered what things could have been like if any one of the scenarios of our past had played out differently. Would both of my sisters be there? Would they be my bridesmaids? Would we dance the night away, sneaking outside to talk about how we couldn’t believe this day was actually here?
As idealistic as that sounds, I realized a long time ago that you can’t press pause on your life in the hopes that someone will change. That’s why I gave myself permission to let go of that hostile relationship without regret. It may sound harsh, given that she is my step-sister, but I’m OK with choosing sides. I’m OK with standing up for my step-dad, letting him know that he didn’t deserve to be the target of such hate. And during various moments of my wedding — during that first look, as he helped give me away, and while we waltzed to “A Song for My Daughter” — I simply wanted him to know how much love I have for him, and how wonderful of a father, man, and role model he truly is.
As for my step-sister, I’ve kept tabs on her life — my other step-sister gives me updates here and there — and it seems like, despite many more cycles of drugs, jail time, and rehab, she may finally be on the upswing toward turning her life around. I hope that she is. We may not ever be close, singing into hairbrushes or talking about boys again, but I would never wish her any ill will. And while I don’t regret refusing to invite her to my wedding, I’ll always hope for a healthier, more positive outcome for her future.
*Names have been changed for privacy.