“Oh, one moment, I have to take this. It’s my sister,” Emily explained.
She stepped away and paced back and forth while she raised the phone to her ear. As she conversed with the undetectable voice on the other end, a smile spread across her face. I thought briefly about what I would do if my sister called in the middle of my encounter with a new friend.
Honestly, I probably would have silenced the call.
Emily returned a few minutes later, just in time to take a sip of the hot coffee that now took up residence at her place at the table. She took that moment to share how she and her sister are best friends. They always have been. She has never known anything different. Their sisterhood transcends blood—a deep friendship built over the years through sweat and tears. I shifted awkwardly in my seat as I thought about how my sister and I’s relationship disbanded years ago. Why couldn’t we make it?
Clearly, some sisterhoods do.
My mind drifted for a moment and settled on a memory of when I stood up at my sister’s wedding. In all honesty, I felt like a fraud. It seemed like I was asked to stand up as an anchor of support simply because I shared the same blood. Somehow that gave me an automatic ticket to the line of ladies standing up at that momentous event. So—what was the point? In the years preceding this celebration—where I pasted on a fabricated smile—my sister and I had chosen very different paths in life. A huge fork in the road had been paved ahead of us, and we promptly followed our respective routes.
I quickly wiped a tear from my face as I replied to Emily, “That must be nice. I don’t have that relationship with my sister.”
As I spoke those words, an arrow of pain shot through my wounded heart. I thought about how our relationship had diminished over the years. The loss caused a pit of grief in my stomach—experienced as anger on some days and resignation on others. Life slowly, but surely, escaped from our relationship and deflated into a flat tire. I wondered if it would ever be patched up again, able to hold new air and new life.
I often think about relationships as an evolutionary phenomenon. An abridged definition of evolution is that things stretch and change from simple to more complex; basically, they can and must adapt to the changing environment. Sadly, our relationship couldn’t manage to keep up with the evolution of our lives—the change in our respective environments. Our bond had already been severed in our formative years due to tragic familial patterns. As time went on, our journeys were being etched with more complexities. Our relationship just couldn’t bend and shift with the demands of our divergent lives. Or, we just simply didn’t want to put forth the effort. I knew it would take a colossal commitment for both parties—basically an act of God—if our relational ember could ever be rekindled again.
One of the things that shifted over the past decade is that we both got married and became parents. My journey to parenthood was filled with trials from the beginning. Hers, not so much. Unfortunately, she couldn’t adapt to my environment and come alongside me in my biggest struggles. Conversely, I had a hard time connecting with her story as I was haphazardly navigating mine. You see—I had been thrust into the club that no one wants to be in. My husband and I had said goodbye to our first baby almost halfway through the pregnancy, and then multiple complications surfaced in our subsequent pregnancies. I couldn’t wrap my mind around how to connect with the straightforward process of my sister’s experience. The innocence of childbearing had been ruptured for me. The experiences of our lives were becoming incompatible. Our relationship could not evolve to meet the demands of the shifting terrain between us.
I recently found a letter my sister had written when we were both in college, just shy of twenty years ago. We had finished a weekend where our relationship came to a head, and anyone within ten feet could feel the heat from the lava bubbling over the volcanic situation. This letter served as an addendum to that weekend. In this letter, my sister apologized for not being the older sister I needed and said she hoped our relationship would grow over the years. She uttered some more promises and basically committed to seeing it through in the future.
Fast forward twenty years, and this has never taken root.
The chasm between us has actually widened as we’ve gone our very separate ways. We have yet to find a way to mutually work through our perpetual disconnect. I hope this isn’t the end of our story. I don’t want it to be the end of our story. Yet, I accept that this is where our relationship currently stands.
Though I most likely will never call my sister “best friend”, I do have a friend that has been there for the past twenty years, cheering me on and meeting me right where I am. Instead of family relationships evolving into close-knit friendships, I have witnessed the opposite. When a family fails to offer the support that we desire, need, and deserve, we search for those friendships that will offer their surrogacy in place of familial absence—and we are indeed lucky to find these authentic friendships. My friend, Amber Lin, is my surrogate sister and I consider our relationship to be a grace upon grace.
The pain is swallowing me whole and I am desperate for someone to bear the weight of my agony at this moment. I search frantically for my phone. I scroll down to her name in my contact list, through blurred tears. There it is—Amber Lin. My thumb fumbles for the call button and I press it, holding my breath as to whether I will reach her in this desperate moment. She picks up, accompanied by her predictably cheery tone, genuinely happy to connect with me. I choke out a feeble, “hello”, and immediately she notices. She perceives I am not doing well, and lets out a gentle whisper, “tell me what’s going on Julie Lynn.” And then, I lose it. I release a waterfall of tears that continue down the face of the phone. I can’t bear the weight of grief from the loss of my baby just months before. I am struggling, and I realize I can’t do it alone. The sorrow weighs heavy on my shoulders at this moment, and I need a shoulder to help me bear the load.
And then without fail, I detect it on the other end of the line—the tears—shed for the pain I am going through. She isn’t there with me in the room, and yet she is THERE—ALL THERE. To have a friend that mourns with you is a gift. A real gift. At that moment, she chose to share the grief that is donated to us in our deepest valleys. She took part in my story, unashamedly and graciously. She showed me the meaning of—shared humanity. Shared grief. Shared knowledge that nobody gets a free pass from the tragedies of this wounded world. Shared humanity permits us to simply be—well—human.
I think about how I may never find common ground with my flesh and blood sister, while our authentic selves continue to play a game of hide and seek in this life. We have yet to find a way back to each other. However, I was lucky enough to procure a fellow human that can share in my grief no matter what—someone with whom I do not have to hold back the torrential downpour of complicated feelings. Someone with whom I can show up exactly as I am—at that moment. These friendships, when discovered, are a gift. I am grateful for what my good friend taught me all those years ago.
And now, I continue to search for shared humanity in the new city in which I live. I need women that I can link up with, face to face. My husband and I moved our family 700+ miles a few months before the pandemic ensued. It has been an isolating two years as we knew nobody here upon arrival, and though I’ve met some people with fits and starts along the way, nothing has taken root yet. It has been more or less a difficult, isolating season of life. I desire to find friendships that refuse to waver with the tumultuous change of life’s seasons, but instead, evolve into something life-giving. I do hope for women I can do life authentically with, and I will hold vigil until that time comes.
In the meantime, I am eternally grateful for my soul sister who has gifted me a deep, sacrificial, authentic friendship—built over the years through sweat and tears. And my hope is that we are all lucky enough to find this gift—in some form or fashion—as we walk the cracked pavement of this fractured world.
The gift of shared humanity.
Julie Klein is a social worker/mental health counselor. Though she is not currently in the social work field, her heart remains hopeful for social justice in this fractured world. She currently stays home constantly herding and unschooling her intensely spirited children. A pour-over cup (or two or three) of coffee is her lifeline and keeps her in the game. She is a fierce advocate for showing up with vulnerability and authenticity, believes everyone has a powerful story to share, and is convinced words hold the unique power to connect with others. She writes at the intersection of her evolving faith and the joys of life, the inevitable grief of life, and the gray that is in-between. Though she has called various cities across the United States home, she now resides outside of Portland, Oregon with her husband and three children.
You can find her on Instagram @julielynnklein