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From The Ashes: The Phoenix Rises
By Billie Criswell

My relationship with my stepsister, Laurie, has been a complicated one from its conception. I was six or seven years old when we met; she was two years older than I. I remember being so overjoyed to receive the news that in one fell swoop I would be getting the father I longed for and the big sister I wished for. It seemed to my childhood mind that everything was going to be perfect when my mother remarried.

…of course, as an adult, I know now that things don’t always work out perfectly, and that was the way it happened with our new, blended family. Laurie carried a lot of pain in her young heart. Her parents, like mine, had divorced when she was young. As I saw it, she was lucky because she had both parents in her life… my own father had abandoned me and my younger brother, Ben, when I was five years old and Ben was just an infant. Even with both of her parents present in her life, Laurie was hard pressed to recover from the disturbance of losing her nuclear family.

Laurie, therefore, was not happy about the marriage between my mother and her father; and that anger would spill over to me and my younger brother as it increasingly took on a darkness I was unable to contend with. The level of anger she would display through her actions–choking us, threatening us with death, and other sordid actions—did not seem to fit cohesively into the picture of the pain of a divorce. Something else seemed to be wrong with Laurie.

The things that happen between siblings, or step-siblings, can often be confusing. Childhood is like a malaise and looking back can be difficult, especially when you are recalling instances that are not happy. This is the way it is for me when I look back on growing up with Laurie. There were incidences that happened that were not right… the best way that I can describe it is as sexual abuse. “Kiss this; touch that;” and so on and so forth.

She was clearly taking out her pain on her new siblings, but she was also outwardly crying for help. Laurie was suicidal as young as age 10. She tried several times over the years to take her own life, and it scared everyone around her. She acted out in other ways as well, often aiming to divide our parents and demolish their marriage. It was difficult for the family. It was stressful. The focus was generally on managing Laurie and her safety and mental health… though I know that it was not the kind of attention she was really looking for.

When I was coming into puberty, I realized that some of the situations that had gone on between Laurie and me were wrong. I wanted to tell my parents because it was a weight on me. It was an albatross, and I wanted to be a phoenix. After I told my mother and stepdad about what had been going on, Laurie became demonized to a certain extent. Of course, we were no longer allowed to be alone with her. But there was never (at least not that I recall) a family meeting to sort it out, or a greater discussion amongst the entire family… all I remember is that we became compartmentalized as a family, rather than united. Laurie was disturbed… on that we could all agree.

To a degree, I was encouraged to have negative feelings toward Laurie. That hate that began to build up in me put a wedge in the relationship I had with my stepfather, who was the only father I had, and that plagued me. Eventually, things snapped. On one side, there stood my brother and I, and on the other Laurie. And in the middle were my parents, who seemed to love each other but just couldn’t get on the same team… and so the team divided. My mom and stepdad divorced amidst the crisis that had become our family. There had been too much pain to contend with.

Thankfully, my stepfather remained a part of my life, and I a part of his, although we struggled quite a bit to maintain a relationship through my teenaged years. I was emotional during that time, and I was being told by mental health professionals that all these feelings (the anger, the hate, the sadness) were perfectly acceptable… and so I wallowed in them fully.

As an adult, I gradually became stronger when I met my husband who told me that wallowing in my pain and sorrow wasn’t going to solve anything. Those experiences that happened to me were memories in the past that I was allowing to rule my life in the present. I had to let go of those things…. and through letting go, I realized how sweet life really is; I began to live more fully. I mended the relationship with my stepfather and began to have the father/daughter relationship I always wanted.

And then, on January 8th, as the world found out that there had been a shooting in Arizona that took the lives of six innocent people, I received a phone call too: Laurie had died in her sleep of respiratory failure that afternoon at the age of 27. I heard the news, but I couldn’t feel it. For three days I walked around in a haze. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t even comprehend the words. I went to my dad’s house, and I went into her room, and I began to clean it….

I picked up the papers that littered the floor; I picked up the pill bottles that had been emptied as I secretly cursed the pain management doctors who had prescribed her death. And I picked up a calendar from last year, and began thumbing through it… as if I could see what her life had been like through a simple calendar. And there, written in the white block for the date August 20th, Laurie had written “Billie’s 25th Birthday.” She thought of me… in her heart. In that moment, and many more moments that would follow, I mourned the conversation that Laurie and I never got to have, of the childhood that had been so confusing. Of her pain that I could not understand that in turn caused me pain.

I never got to ask her why these things took place, or to tell her that I had forgiven her for everything that had happened. I never got the chance to realize that, in my heart, I loved her too… and I never realized the true nature of unconditional love that can take place between siblings, even if they are not related by blood. Because no matter what your siblings do, you love them.

I know that if Laurie were alive, we probably would not have reconciled at this time. Perhaps there would have been a time when we would have been able to say to each other the things that we had avoided for so long; I guess I will never know. All that I know now is that I am here, and that she is gone. My stepfather has lost his only biological daughter, just as I lost my only biological father so many years ago.

I would have never thought in a million years that I would be humbled in this way by the death of someone who caused me so much pain. But what I have learned is that everything happens for a reason; perhaps it could be said that the Universe brought my dad and I together so that we could both recapture the blessings we would ultimately lose and need–I needed a father, and now he needs a daughter. Maybe the one great gift that I can do with my life is to give my dad the love that he needs, and has always needed, from a daughter.

Billie Criswell Bio:

Billie Criswell is a freelance writer and blogger from the Delaware Seashore. She writes on a variety of lifestyle issues, is a self-proclaimed foodie, and has been published online as well as in print. Billie has just completed her first book. Visit my blog at http://www.abilliontinypieces.com/

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