Accepting what life hands you

My sister turned 80 years old Saturday, May 11. She was born in 1939, four days ahead of Mother’s Day that year. I guess my mother was hoping for a holiday baby who arrived a bit early — the way I felt when my daughter, who the doctors predicted would be born on Valentine’s Day, made an earlier appearance and is instead a February Groundhog. Well, the old saying is correct: Babies are born on their own schedules.
My sister’s life has not been easy. She is bipolar, something my doctor-father identified very early in her life. Along with that identification came my new and continuing job: As the almost-five-years-older sibling in a family that would have no other children, my role became more caretaker than simply “big sister.” In one way or another, even when we have lived far apart, this relationship has continued. It has not been easy for either of us.
I mentioned before that I was immensely privileged to be on the board of an Illinois mental health center when Elizabeth Kubler-Ross M.D., famed author of “On Death and Dying,” became our medical director. I learned about lithium from her. Because of that, my sister was one of the first to be treated with it and described its effects this way: “I don’t have to be cleaning out drawers all the time anymore!”
The drawer cleaning, of course, took place during her manic phases. During the depressions, she would sleep. She was a young woman of immense intelligence and strength, and through it all, a respected teacher of high school history, with specialties in subjects as diverse as Mary Queen of Scots and American trade unions. She never missed a day. But during those depressive times, I had to go from my home to her apartment to drag her out of bed and make sure she would get ready for school. After her college graduation, she had followed me to Chicago so that this would be possible.
My sister has overcome enough of what is a true, but much misunderstood, disability to live an almost normal life. She has three college degrees, including an MBA. She married and has two daughters, both respected professionals. But her behavior is erratic. Currently, she will not speak to one of them; nobody knows why.
My sister has also overcome immense physical problems: two bouts with breast cancer, and a recent major heart valve replacement. That difficult surgery was made even more difficult because the effects of radiation rendered opening her chest impossible; the operation involved threading up through a vein in her leg. She was told in advance that there were no guarantees; this was an elective procedure. But if she elected not to have it, she should go home and make her end-of-life plans immediately. So, she took a chance, survived the operation and came through the long, long rehab that followed.
My sister is now, and always will be, in an assisted-living facility. I talked to her on her birthday. She is not happy. But she gave herself a party, inviting many people she has known for the past 30 years to come and have cake with her. The beautiful cake was a gift from the daughter she still does not speak to.
I write all this to tell you, as I remind myself, that life is always what we get, but never always what we want. I am older than my sister, and healthier than my sister, and still — after all these years, and despite the physical distance between us — remain her primary caretaker. I have lived the role assigned to me almost 80 years ago. I do not complain, because I grew up with our doctor-father’s maxim: “Take whatever life hands you, and do the best you can with it, because that’s all there is.”
This advice has served me well for more than eight decades. Today, I pass it on to you.

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