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Sister, You've Been On My Mind

"Come with me, Matt. Your dad has something he wants to tell you."

Mom made the quiet statement when I was roughly twelve years old, coming to get me from another room in our brick house on John St. Several things went through my mind at the time: I hadn't done anything bad recently, so it couldn't be that, could it? The notion of divorce was one that always lurked in the back of my head, though it wouldn't become realized for another year. As mom led me into their bedroom (an odd choice of venue), I honestly couldn't think of what it was dad had to talk with me about.

Entering the room that he and my mother shared, I found Lewis sitting, looking more solemn than he typically did. Through lots of obvious angst, pauses and sighs, he told me that I had two older half-sisters, Valarie and Angie. They were from a previous marriage, his first. You can imagine how this news might shake someone who, for their initial twelve years of life, only knew of his father being married to his mother, and who had been raised as an only child. There were questions, I'm sure, though now it is difficult to remember what they were.

Once the news had been delivered, there was more to come. Valarie was living in town, and dad wanted us (he and I) to go meet her. Still stunned, and mildly curious, there wasn't much point in arguing about it. So, eventually, off we went. To say there was an underlying level of awkwardness to the meeting would be an understatement, though I appreciated being in my half-sister's home, catching a glimpse of her life and -- most importantly -- meeting her. Dad, on the other hand, wasn't as content.

I forget the range of things he said, but Lewis had not been happy with the visit to Valarie's house. This wasn't uncommon for dad, though. Valarie's apparent sin was that she hadn't been warm and friendly enough. I'm not sure what he was expecting after so many years -- a tearful embrace? Unfortunately, real life doesn't always imitate the movies in such scenarios. I thought that, given the circumstances, sis had done her best to make us feel welcome. I could empathize with dad's frustration, but some understanding for others' feelings on his part wouldn't have gone amiss.

Lewis ended up marrying a fourth time, and that marriage produced a child, a half-brother named Dillon. As he explained it, his two sons' names could be put together to make 'Matt Dillon.' Dad was a big fan of old Western TV shows. At any rate, he passed away when Dillon was very young, and then events conspired in such a way that I did not see my younger brother until several years later, where history repeated, though with myself in the opposite role than when dad and I had first visited Valarie all those years ago. If there was one constant, it was the awkwardness.

It's Valarie's birthday today. We're friends on Facebook, and I wished her a happy birthday there. We've seen each other a handful of times in the intervening years since that first visit with dad, though I would describe our relationship as both simple and complex. Her and I (and Angie) are siblings. Raised under different roofs, we can't really be described as 'close.' This is something I've struggled with, but have recently come to terms with.

I remember us -- Val, Angie and I -- riding back from Springfield to Champaign on the day of Lewis' funeral in 1997. It was a quiet ride. There just wasn't much to say. It had been an exhausting two days (the visitation on Monday, the funeral on Tuesday). But I'm glad we rode together. There have been the occasions I've seen them, and my nieces and nephews, around town. And we all made it down to Mississippi for Grandma Callie's 100th birthday celebration in 2007.

Having half-siblings has been a learning experience. Initially, I wanted to compartmentalize my life into one of either two sectors: only-child or someone with siblings. In a sense, I've decided that straddling the line between those two option isn't such a bad, or in accurate, descriptor. Life is imperfect. It does not often follow a direct path. It's not always easy to navigate and to label. We deal with the situations laid out for us by fate, or others, or whatever else has happened upon the way. We do the best we can.

Happy Birthday, Val.


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