I have been the big sister for so long that I almost forgot that children grow up too. I am older than my four siblings by 7, 9, 13, and 16 years respectively. I have taken on the responsibilities of this role for so long that I never imagined a day would come, so soon, when our roles would be reversed.
It was a beautiful summer day in 2006 when I received the phone call that left me shivering and in shock – seven members of my family had been in a
car accident while vacationing in East Africa. My grandma passed away on impact and my mother was ejected from the vehicle resulting in multiple
fractures to her face, neck, back, and arm. It was a blessing to hear that the children and my father walked away with only bruises and minor cuts. As
soon as we were able to organize and delegate responsibilities amongst family members, I flew to Kuwait from my home in Canada to tend to the
children while my father remained in hospital with my mom in South Africa.
I thought I was going there to help my siblings cope and to provide emotional support. What I did not know was that these children would
be doing that for me.
One night I was up late talking with my two sisters, ages 14 and 12. We discussed family matters, the past, the accident, and the length of my stay with them. Maryam, the twelve year old, had tears in her eyes, but as is her nature she tried to conceal her emotions by laughing and cracking jokes. I kneeled next to her, held her, and told her to cry. “It is okay to cry – there is nothing wrong with it. You will feel better afterwards,” I whispered. “It’s good. Let it out. It’s okay.” I repeated this while stroking her hair.
Later that month, when our mom was finally able to return home, I only had three days left of my trip to spend with her before my flight back to Canada. Visits by well-wishers and family friends were frequent, leaving little time for us to grieve and reflect in private as a family. These kind individuals cooked every meal for us, made me feel at home in their community during my stay, and were helping to care for mom. I was grateful and therefore could not express my wish for more privacy. One afternoon my frustration with the lack of time I had left with my mom overpowered me and I began to cry. My two sisters saw me as I went to the bathroom, tears streaming down my face. They both sat with me, their very presence easing the situation. “I can’t believe I am crying over nothing.” I said. Then Maryam leaned across, held me, and said “It’s okay to cry. There is nothing wrong with crying, and you will feel better afterwards. It’s good. Let it out. It’s okay.” I could not help but laugh through my tears.
I cannot count the number of times during my four week visit that I broke down crying after talking with my mom on the phone, seeing her picture, or
remembering our grandmother. Yet every time, Sarah, the fourteen year old, was there to hold me and comfort me … she did not shed a single tear.
I do not know when they grew up. I was not there to see the transition, but I cannot thank Allah enough for giving me caring and resilient siblings with whom I can both laugh and cry. As the eldest in the family, I usually identify myself as the role model, decision-maker, and teacher. Now I know better – I know that I too have much to learn about life. I no longer view my siblings as mere youth in need of my guidance. They, too, are my teachers.
Jenna Evans graduated from the University of Toronto in 2014 with a PhD in Health Services Research. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation where she enjoys conducting research on how to improve the coordination and quality of health care. She enjoys experimenting with new strategies that can help her maintain that elusive quality we all look for in life: Balance.