Saturday, 14 November 2015

From an only child: cherish your siblings

I am an only child. I grew up in a relatively sheltered setting. As a child, I pretty much got what I wanted. My parents' love was concentrated, I got the best of an education that they could afford and I had my own room. Life was simple - all my toys were mine, all my clothes were mine and all the love and attention I wanted was mine.

That got suffocating in my teens, and by the time I hit 16, I was more than ready to head off to boarding school. It was an expensive school, one which at the time my parents would not have been able to afford for two or three children. But because I was just one, I received a privileged private school education in the Kent countryside, one which no doubt opened a multitude of doors for me.

As an only child, I never yearned for a sibling. Friends and cousins were in abundance, so there never really was a lack of playmates. As a teen, I relished the after-school solitude that many teens long for. My room was my unencumbered space, in which I could listen to my own kind of music and sleep in the way I wanted to sleep - all essentials for a happy teenage life.

Throughout university, I was too busy to think about being an only child. Those years were not family centric. They were about building myself, exploring new ideas and enjoying living an independent life in expensive central London. Again, at this juncture, it was clear that being an only child meant that I could live in London's expensive SW7 postcode and have the Bank of Mum and Dad fund my life there. After all, there wasn't anyone else to share in their finite resources.

Don't get me wrong. I worked hard in school, I worked hard at university. I made sure I got the right grades. I pursued (and sometimes created) opportunities for myself to forge a career path into the law. I knew that, at some stage, the taps would be turned off and my parents would expect me to stand on my own. But there never really was any financial hardship as a London student. Things were made easier for me. All really because I am an only child.

Now in my thirties, life's focus is beginning to change. Relationships are becoming the focus of life. And what I really miss at this stage is a sibling - someone of my blood whom I probably would have, as a child, considered an inevitable hindrance. But as my parents' mortality becomes real, the existential thought of there being no one in their absence to share memories of my childhood with is chilling.

There is something understood in a sibling relationship that is quite unique to it. Siblings might be separated by thousands of miles, but there is an unspoken rule that they stand by each other in times of need, they share family responsibilities when life demands, and they offer unsolicited counsel to each another. Blood is, after all, thicker than water. Siblings might have been known to bicker for years, but there is that unifying something upon the death of a parent that triggers adherence to this unspoken rule.

An old acquaintance, now in Canada, recently wrote to me with her Diwali greetings. For years she's had an up-and-down relationship with her brother in Kenya. Safe to say that their characters are poles apart. They lost their parents to illness a few years' ago. Her brother recently got married in Kenya. In her email to me, she attached some photos of the wedding. What struck me was the fact that notwithstanding her ups and downs with her brother, she made sure she was at that wedding. No doubt, her parents' absence meant that her presence at the wedding was now increasingly important. Her photos with her brother on what was clearly a long overdue happy day for her (especially after the tumultuous years she'd had with her parents' deteriorating health and the harsh realities of life that follow the demise of loved ones) demonstrated a fundamental principle that underscores so many sibling relationships - come what may, I will be there. There is something fulfilling about that - something that perhaps replenishes the void created by the solitude of being an only "adult" child. Solitude that no lover, friend or cousin can ever fully eliminate.

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