Emily and I on a rare 1:1 lunch date
The unseen-siblings of special needs kids
Invisibility. That’s the superpower that siblings of special needs kids cultivate. Even if they wanted a different one like being able to fly they would be stuck with invisible. It’s not a choice. None of us got a choice.
It’s not that I don’t actually see my other children. And it’s not that I don’t try. It’s just that no matter how much effort and attention I give them Haley, by virtue of her diagnosis, needs more. We all sacrifice things for her. Whether it’s a family vacation because the medical bills are too much, or a trip to an amusement park because Haley can’t do the rides, or not participating in an after school activity because Haley has a Dr appointment. But one of the things that we don’t really acknowledge is sacrificed is our family dynamic. Our relationships with each other.
In order to keep my older daughter’s life as normal as possible my husband and I do a lot of divide and conquer. The problem there is in the word divide. Because we can’t unite and conquer, it’s not really possible to plan for all of us to spend 6 hours at a swim meet. So we are left feeling like we are split shift parenting and just passing by one another most days. But it’s the only way to keep any semblance of normalcy for our children. And so we sacrifice the typical in favor of the workable.
I have sacrificed the relationship that I thought I would have with my older daughter. Because of our divide and conquer approach I am typically taking care of Haley while my husband is running Emily around. They have a standing Father daughter dinner date on Friday nights after swim practice. There have been many moments that I regret missing, far too few of my own one on one moments with Emily. But it’s a sacrifice we are forced to make in order to make our family work.
Haley’s older sister Emily is a compassionate, sensitive girl. She sees, really sees, people. She is the kind of girl who would never watch someone sit alone in the lunch room without going over and inviting them to join her. She’s the kind of girl who talks openly with me about the things that teens struggle with- body image, sexual orientation, dating- and has no shame about who she is, embracing her quirks and individuality with vigor. She is accepting of everyone as she tries to navigate the bumpy waters of being a teen with dignity and maturity and confidence. She is comfortable with herself in a way that some people never are. But I know that our moments together are too few. And I recognize that she is all of those things in part because of what she’s watched her sister endure.
She’s also the same girl who once said that she wished she had an incurable illness so that we would pay as much attention to her as we do to Haley. And she’s the one who every time I say no will ask “because of Haley’s seizures?” Not knowing that it cuts a scar in my heart each time I let her down. She’s the one who has learned to ask before she eats the last of anything- is this for Haley? Because she knows that Haley can only have certain foods due to her diet therapy. She’s the one who has watched me prepare precise meals and treats for her sister every day while she has to settle for whatever Mom isn’t too tired to make.
She’s also the one who will drop whatever teen thing she’s doing to read her sister a bed time story. She’s the one who lets her sister hang out with her and her friends more than most kids her age. She’s the one who when she hears us go rushing through the house will drop what she’s doing and rush to her sister too. She’s the one who will hold Haley’s hand as the seizure grips her body and she will echo my own words “It’s ok Haley bug. I’m here for you”.
On the night of Haley’s first seizure, as Artie ran outside to help the ambulance find us, and I was on the phone with the 911 operator sobbing “please don’t let my daughter die, she’s not breathing”, Emily was the 8 year old girl left on her own to cry in the living room with no one to comfort her as I breathed air into her sisters mouth. She is the one who had no one to dry her tears as I was too busy putting my ear to Haley’s nose to see if she had resumed breathing. Emily is the one who went outside with the first policeman on the scene to see his car as he distracted her while the paramedics loaded her sister on a stretcher. She’s the girl I left behind that night to go with her sister. She’s the one who needed my care and comfort but went without because Haley needed me more.
That was the night that Emily became one of the unseen- the sacrifices, the casualties- of special needs families that don’t get talked about often enough. The sibling. The girl who feels invisible. What I want to say most is I SEE you. Not just Emily, all of you. I see you. Even if you feel invisible, even if your sibling needs more, I hope to give you enough so that you know that you are seen. And loved. And I hope you know that I would give anything to take this from you, not just from your sister, but this burden of yours as well. You are not unseen, you are just unsung. The unsung hero sacrificing pieces of your own childhood and life to save your sister. I see that. I wish I could protect you from it, but since I can’t I hope you know I’m here and I see you. I see your fear and your love and all of you. Even when you think I’m not looking I AM. You are not invisible to me.