Theoretically speaking, the line between life as an only child and life with siblings should be thick and distinct. In real life, when government laws force over a decade of time between you and your older sister, the line dwindles from Sharpie to pencil. In 1990, my sister was born into a China under strict population control. Thirteen years and an ocean later, I was born in California. She was already in seventh grade.
We were like two planets in the same solar system, orbiting the same star yet separated by an expanse of time and space. I started first grade the month she attended her first college class. Five years later, she got married days before my first day of middle school. Three years after that, the distance between our lives once again revealed itself.
I don’t remember whose phone was used to make the call, but I do remember that their three faces barely fit in the screen. From left to right they sat: my mom, my brother-in-law, my sister. My mom, who was visiting my sister as a surprise Mother’s Day trip, asked my dad and I if we wanted to see her second gift. Thousands of miles away at home and thinking nothing of the deceivingly bland question, we said yes.
While life-altering changes rarely leave calling cards, this one announced itself under the guise of a common greeting card. She held it up for us to read. It said: The Best Moms Get Promoted to Grandmas.
My heart immediately understood, but my mouth let out a delayed and quiet, “What?” My mom laughed and asked if my dad was in shock. Nudging him, I said, “You get it? You’re going to be a grandpa.” To this, he finally spoke. “Great,” he said. My dad, my mom, my sister, my brother-in-law—everybody was smiling, everybody was excited, everybody—except me. There I was, jealous not of a younger sibling but of a niece, and not as a toddler but as a teenager. “It doesn’t feel real,” I told my dad. “Real is real,” he said.
In Mandarin, there’s a saying that directly translates to mean “to eat bitterness.” It means to suffer. To be good at eating bitterness means to be able to suffer with strength. Growing up in communist China, my parents had eaten bitterness in spoonfuls. My dad, who was 2 inches shorter than me and 4 inches shorter than my sister, maintained that he would’ve certainly been taller if he’d had more to eat as a child.
So how was I, a kid who had never truly suffered, who lived in a house with a pool and attended a private school, supposed to explain that I was resentful of an invisible baby, a baby my parents had been hoping for ever since my sister had married?
It was time for bed, and so the call ended. I climbed upstairs, brushed my teeth, and slipped into bed, all while holding that ugly and complicated mess of feelings inside of me. I curled up deep in the covers, listening to my dad’s slippers as they clapped against the stairs. I felt like an adulterer before confession. Finally, his footsteps entered the room, and he knelt beside my bed. He asked me a question, but I didn’t—I couldn’t—respond. The hidden chaos inside of me had turned into silent tears. “Oh,” he said, wrapping me against him.
What I really heard in that word and in his arms was the one thing I needed to hear. Daughter, I love you.