My Didi, My Keeper: Did My Illness Steal My Sister’s Childhood?

Modern Family

My Didi, My Keeper: Did My Illness Steal My Sister’s Childhood?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Between the elder and younger sister, who has it better?

It’s an age-old debate, and depending on where you stand in the sibling hierarchy, you probably have a different answer to that question. Older ones insist that chhoti rani could get away with murder, while younger sisters wail that they will never be treated like grown-ups. Parents who carefully save their firstborn’s milk teeth and baby footprints have lost the will to keep so much as a photo album of Spawn #2, and the energy to stop her from getting her septum pierced when she turns 16.

As a bratty younger kid, I always thought my sister, four years my senior, was the favourite child. Her sleepy, faraway expression and placid nature made her a parent’s dream, and even at school, she could usually be found sitting alone with her nose in a book. In a family filled with tempestuous personalities, she was usually cast in the role of moderator. And stuck with a little sister like me, she soon became a third parent, tasked with keeping me alive and out of trouble.

Unlike my introvert sister, I loved being the centre of attention. I’d dance on the supermarket cash counter to score a free Dairy Milk, and my mother’s friend, an actress, would greet me with, “So, who are you today?” — knowing I might be portraying anyone from Mary Poppins to DDLJ’s Raj. Besides being constantly engaged in this kind of performance art, I was a scrappy kid who got into fights, rarely listened to reason, and liked to play with fire and climb tall objects. Basically, my sister’s work as my guardian was cut out for her from day one.

But even that was poor preparation for the responsibility that was to come. When I was nine and she 13, I was diagnosed with leukaemia. Suddenly, my family’s future plans changed overnight, as it became clear I would have to undergo many months of chemotherapy. My father gave up a job offer, my mother became my full-time carer, staying with me in hospital for days on end. In all the chaos, everyone’s attention was, more than ever, lavished on me. And my sister? Always the mature, responsible one who never needed supervision to do her homework or household chores, she was left to her own devices.

As it happens, it’s common to be shunted aside when your sibling has a serious illness. After all, even the most devoted and well-meaning parents are bound to shift their focus to the child whose survival is at risk.

A New York Times piece delves into the unexplored pain of those who are left behind after the illness or death of their beloved siblings: Well-wishers inquire after their parents but neglect to comfort them; there is rarely counselling for siblings; parents and caregivers keep them in the dark, trying to shield them; and their grief is secondary to the pain of the rest of the family. “Beyond the lifestyle changes and the terror of the unknown, the healthy sibling’s role in the family shifts. Parents are in triage mode, and by default, the well child must take a back seat: Their needs simply aren’t as important…,” journalist Abby Ellin writes. Siblings like my sister, tasked with being stoic and well-behaved, often suffer in silence, and only deal with their trauma later in life.

Unlike my introvert sister, I loved being the centre of attention.

Through all this my sister never threw a tantrum or ever complained to my parents demanding attention. She mostly kept to herself and her books. At the time, I was too wrapped up in my own illness to worry about her. But even after I recovered and things were supposed to go back to normal, our relationship was never quite the same. My illness had accentuated the stark differences between us, and we no longer had anything in common. She would lecture me like a parent, and I, forever opposed to authority, would dismiss her. We weren’t friends anymore, or partners in crime — we just lived in the same house, alternating between fights and indifference.

After she moved to Canada to study, we drifted further apart, only entering each other’s orbit a couple of times a year. But when I, too, had to move, our parents naturally thought it made sense for us to live together. From the first, it was like lighting a powderkeg. I was used to seeing my big sister as a guardian, a kind of surrogate parent who would help me through this new phase of life. She, on the other hand, was determinedly self-sufficient, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t. For months, we lived in a state of perpetual friction, fraying away each other’s nerves.

I can’t put my finger on exactly when we put our differences aside, but somewhere in the course of our endless fights, we both discovered a truth that we’d forgotten over the years: Despite our divergent lives, we had always been on the same team. Suddenly, we were swapping stories of all the times we had stuck up for each other with our parents — the foundation of any good sibling relationship. The judgments we had so hastily placed on each other as children melted away, allowing us to finally see each other as brand-new, much-improved adults. We were both done with suffering in silence.

Today, my sister and I are still miles apart in distance and temperament – she’s in London and I’m back in Mumbai – and I still think she’s the favourite child. But it’s cool, I get it — because she is my favourite, too.