The Search for the Best Birthday Present Ever

Now is as good a time as any to tell you about my relationship with Meimei during those years.

To say that we were close would be true, but an understatement. She meant the world to me. It seemed that everything I did was for her. We got way too close in many regards, perhaps inevitably. Like I explained in Trial Separation, we became each other’s parent out of necessity and survival and had to separate in order to not drown in each other. Not easy at all.

I think the day that I found out my sister had panic attacks was close to as dying as I got after my suicidal period. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t WANT to believe it. But a lifetime spent not running away forced me back into reality. I felt that I had failed – failed as an older brother, failed as a human being, failed at everything. After all, I had failed at the most important thing – protecting my sister. It took me a while to get over that.

Is there ever a point in someone’s life where they grow tired of birthdays? Maybe it was me just clinging to the shreds of my childhood, but birthdays used to be so important to me for so long. Cakes and candles, presents and friends…memories of happier times.

But as the years dragged on they grew stale and tired like everything else, and after a while each became stale and tired – my father would come over, (and my mother would leave so she wouldn’t have to see him) my sister would draw me something, we would sing Happy Birthday, get out a cake and cut it. My mother would give me a card with money that was a multiple of the age that I was – so 200 dollars when I turned 20, 250 at 25, etc. (which I would promptly squirrel away) Same thing each year.

Not the worst of birthdays, compared to eigthteen and twenty-one. But not the best either. I never thought of inviting friends over, though I was sure that if I did, they would come. My self-imposed isolation wore heavily on me, but I didn’t know how to break out of it. And every single wish, every single time, on each candle was the same – for me to get well. I didn’t care about anything else. All I wanted was to get well, and I wanted it with a fervor and an intensity that was more than religious in nature. If only I would be free of this demon on my back. If only I could be happy again.

I think what summed up our relationship the best was Meimei always trying to buy birthday presents for me when younger. And she did buy some really good ones too. Knowing me better than anyone else alive, she obviously knew what I liked (sometimes better than I did myself) She bought me books. She gave me music. She drew me cards (all of which I have kept till this day) She was trying to make me happy.

But it placed a great burden on me as well. I wasn’t happy. Obviously not! I think only a madman could have been happy in the conditions that I was in, and if anything I have always tried to stay as sane as I could – not an easy feat in those times. She was just a child and could not see the pain her good intentions were putting me through. I had to be “ok” for my mother, and now I had to be happy for my sister as well? There’s only so much someone can take. Birthdays could be excruciating affairs, because I would have to pretend for her sake that I was enjoying myself when sometimes I just wanted to go somewhere and cry (and guess what I couldn’t do that either even when it WASN’T my birthday!)

There was pressure like you could not imagine to simply accept each present gratefully and with a smile on my face, whereas internally I sometimes just wanted to scream and cry and have the world disappear. But that would have meant that I was Not Well and Having a Fit and then everything would come crashing down again.

There was no place to be myself except well…anywhere. In my dreams, maybe. (I mean that in literal as well as figurative sense.) At least those that did not turn into nightmares. I loved her but I could not be what she needed me to be all the time. She needed parents, but then again, so did I.

I think Meimei knew – as she knew everything about me – just how important birthdays were to me. And so she tried her best to fix them. But she was just one girl against an army of darkness. She tried to buy me so many things but blinded as I was by despair and pain, I couldn’t see the affection that lay behind them. I didn’t want things, I wanted love. That one thing more precious than even food, water or sleep, that human and animals alike would die without. I wished for it but it never came…or maybe it didn’t come from where I wanted it to.

But enough about that. What else did we share…what else DIDN’T we share? The language of my heart became hers as well – I began teaching her Japanese from when she was around eight or so. Over the years those words in a tongue so dear to us would become part of a shared bond. We spoke it whenever we didn’t want our Mum to overhear us, and when we needed to go deeper than what the mind could handle. We got a lot of strange looks in public (since we were obviously NOT Japanese) but it was nice to have a secret tongue that no one else could decipher.

Japanese was just the start of it. I taught her everything else I knew. How to deal with people, how to keep healthy, how to download things from the Internet, how to recognize when a creep is hitting on you. Any information I had, I shared. Whatever experiences I had were hers.
We did what we could for each other in those days. I talked to her way too much, about games, my feelings, my views on life, philosophy and politics and God knows what else. She relied on me for almost everything – checking to see if food was bad, if she was running a temperature, if she needed to hand in her work on time, what to wear for work or for school.

Would it that it were any other way. But that would require a time machine and a damn good quantum detector, neither of which I have.
But even now, I don’t regret a single second. You don’t have the luxury of second-guessing yourself in war. You do what you have to to survive, no more, no less. Dewi once told me (and it’s true) that “you didn’t even think for a second that your studies would come before your sister. You just gave them up because you had to.” Study? Go to college? What the fuck were you talking about? When my dearest sister needed my help? You had GOT to be kidding.

I can remember her knocking on my door, and her thin and tired face, so worried – seemingly always so worried. Her voice asking “Ge Ge, Ge Ge” (Chinese for elder brother, which is what she has called me all her life) What was it today? Did she need a hug? A talk? Help with homework? Did her friends bully her? Was Mum shouting at her again? It’s ok. I’m here. I’m here.

I don’t think I ever minded. I was happy to help. Even when I was battling my own demons and fighting the darkness within and without, I always had the time and energy for her. (Except when I didn’t and I would lie to myself that I had.) I could be there for her in the way that no one ever was for me. That made it all worth it. I could do it – I could really do it! I could fix everything. I was the one with the answers, the strong right arm and steady nerves. Where Mum and Dad failed I would prevail. Trust me. I can handle it.

Except when I couldn’t. Then when everything came crashing down and the inevitable relapse occurred she would get so worried and frightened and hide and yes, I would feel bad. But I couldn’t let myself believe that. I had to be there, I had to be strong, I had to protect her. I saw the girl who came back, that smiling and innocent girl from the US – my sister! My only sister! and I knew that whatever happened to me nothing could happen to her. I didn’t just want to give her a choice, I wanted to give her life itself. But I was not strong enough – no one is strong enough – to do that.

It never really struck me that I was sacrificing – had in many ways already sacrificed! – my life for my sister’s. It was just something that had to be done. Meimei HAD to be protected, no matter the cost. It was a foregone conclusion, something so obvious and evident that it was hardly worth asking or talking about, like how the sky is blue and gravity existed. Why waste time talking about the obvious? She was one girl in all the world, and I had to make sure she was ok.

Yes like I said it did get pretty dysfunctional at times, but we were hardly in the best of places. We gave too much of ourselves, we demanded too much of each other. But how could we be any other way? We didn’t have parents! What we had was each other. Sometimes it felt that in the entire world, we only had each other.

We did the best we could, and the best that we could was plenty. Somehow, we not only survived but thrived. Florence once said softly that “what you and your sister have is something special” and I truly, truly believe that. We wouldn’t have made it otherwise.

And where was my mother in all of this? Jealous and scared of our shared bond. Once, her fears and paranoia led her to believe that we were sleeping together. At one point I got so tired of having to convince her otherwise that I just said “look, if I had wanted her I would have had her by now!” Perhaps not the right thing to say but I was frustrated beyond belief at that time. She would also always say that we were talking about her behind her back and speaking Japanese so she couldn’t understand and argh…more of my mom’s nonsense. After a while we just ignored it as best as we were able to.

Still…I look back and this is another time that my heart breaks anew. She deserved better. I deserved better. We both did. Our bond should have been one of shared interests and childhood memories and times spent together. And it was. But there were also so many crossed wires, so many triggers.

It wasn’t the best of times, nor the most functional of relationships. Closeness breeds familiarity, but without clear boundaries that can spill over into a melding of emotions and thoughts that is not exactly healthy. Suppositions and assumptions abounded – how I thought she was thinking this or that, and if that was the case then I would have to do this, but if it wasn’t then the correct course of action was that…a minefield of wherefores and what-ifs that I couldn’t even ask her about to set things straight. Because that would be too much pressure on the poor girl, when she was already dealing with God knows what else.

How we sometimes set each other off…I could write another chapter on that alone. When she thought that I was angry at her for every little thing. I wasn’t – that was just the Mum in her talking. I could be ambivalent and arbitrary, often cutting her off when she wanted to say something. She felt she had to suppress her own wants in favor of mine, and so she held on until she couldn’t anymore and she got angry and then that would make ME feel guilty and I would try to rationalize and solve HER problems and…I’m not going to go on. It was a tangle of hurting and wounding that took many years to heal.

So much transference from every little thing! I almost never got angry at her nor she at me, but we were both under incredible amounts of pressure, and some of the things we did and said…but it is neither of our faults.

And the host of other issues, like the one about payback. In her very first therapy session (in which I was a largely silent observer) her therapist told her that “you are trying to make a Scrooge out of your brother’s generosity and kindness.” Which once again she couldn’t help because of our mother’s programming. You always had to pay it back. There were no gifts to be given or received.

But that was my Mum’s world and not mine. I did everything I did because she was there, because it had to be done. I did my best and more because I loved her.

On to other parents – namely, me. Every father dreams of his child’s success, and since I was hers in many ways it was no different for me. My dearest wish for Meimei (other than that fabled Xanadu – happiness) was that she would be able to stand up for herself and be strong on her own…but she felt that she couldn’t and because she couldn’t she was bad. That frustrated me to no end. But on a deeper level I understood that she could not and believed in the time when she would be able to. That time came and all my faith was more than justified. She is and was far stronger than she knows.

But parent-wise she was as much my surrogate mother as I was her father. I talk about all the ways I helped her I but I think too of everything she did for me! She listened to me all those times that I had to talk – about my life, about my issues, about how I was feeling, about everything. She knew how to pull me out of the darkness better than anyone else alive, even when it didn’t always work. Her intuition awakened me to things that I didn’t even know existed about myself and others, and her direct and practical nature meant that I would always be taken to task for any mistakes I made.

I was always so angry at our parents over Meimei. Why couldn’t you be like me? Why won’t you sacrifice everything for us the way I sacrificed everything for her? Don’t you love us? Don’t you have any determination of your own? You both are the parents, you’re responsible for us! I shouldn’t need to take care of us in this way! But over the course of more than a decade I would grow to learn why.

It’s wasn’t all bad. Far from it! I look back too upon all the other good things we shared. The stories I told her and that she listened to, all the way from when we were little kids in the US. Her own stories that she started to tell as she grew. The cosplays! The late nights spent playing Japanese video game after video game, where I would read and act out the text to her when she wasn’t able to read fast enough. The discussions. The jokes and funny videos. The analysis of this song or that character or this costume. We shared everything – the good, the bad, the pathological.

In the end she gave me more than all those birthday presents. She gave me life itself. A reason to keep going, to keep fighting.

I’ve thought for many years how to really describe my relationship with Meimei. How do you talk about your true love when it’s not a romantic thing? There are all these songs about star-crossed lovers and the like, but what happens when your raison d’etre is your younger sister?

Like so many things in my life, anime has the answer. There’s a song in Shinkon Gattai Godannar – a romantic song (unavoidable!) but it does express my feelings better than almost any song I’ve heard in my life.

The lyrics tell of my bond with my sister better than I ever could. When I looked into her eyes, I knew the reason I was born. How I wanted to tell her and could not – that the wounds that she had have suffered only made me stronger. And if she was to smile, I would surpass all sorrow, and turn it into sheerest joy.

Whatever pain pierced my body, I could withstand, if it was for her. Her love had gifted me with an unflinching heart, a storm of flame that scorched the darkness within and without as surely as the giant robots that I watched onscreen defeated their foes. I would turn tears into strength, and protect her, my beloved, she who was my forever.

Watashi no tatta hitori, itoshii imouto yo. (My one and only beloved little sister.) Our bond is and was stronger than the tragedy, greater than the pain. We triumphed together against impossible odds. Whoever or whatever we become, my love shall never waver.

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