She’s been an Elder’s wife for a while now. I see pictures of her here and there, though I try hard to avoid it. She’s always got her shiny, Mississippi-sun-kissed hair tied up in a ponytail. She’s much more fit than she was when we were kids. Her toned arms are tan, usually hauling around a blonde-haired, red-cheeked kiddo on her hip, sporting her same full lips and famous hazel Hagelund eyes. It breaks my heart every day that I’ve only met two of the three little ones. It’s been at least three years since I was allowed to see them at all.
She used to be my person. We fought, to be sure. We had full-on nail-scratching, hair-pulling blow-outs over silly things, like stealing each other’s clothes or flirting with each other’s crushes. The kind of stuff that happens when you’re sisters with only a year between you. But she was my person.
For 18 years, we lived in the same room. We knew everything about each other: annoyances, favorite junk food, which boy at church we thought was cute. We also knew every single one of each other’s firsts: first period, first bra, first kiss. She was always way ahead of the game in that regard, although I was older. Maybe that’s why I raced her to the rebellious stuff. She knew when I smoked my first Marlboro light, when I drank my first cheap, nasty vodka, when I snuck out for the first time to meet a guy. She knew when I dipped my toe over that line into leading a double life, and she knew when I dove in.
And I knew when she crossed that line. After all, I was her person, too. I knew when she lost her virginity to her now-husband, the Mississippi Elder. She and I, we crossed that line at the same time. I did it recklessly, with a racing heart and no looking back. She was more careful. She slid under the radar just as I busted through, loudly declaring my rebellion and waving my arms. I realized I could never fit their idea of a good Jehovah’s Witness woman, and she realized that’s all she wanted to be.
I was kicked out of the church for breaking the same rule that she never got caught for. She stood by me for a few months. She’d go into town with me and glare at the gossipy old Elder’s wives at the store who’d see us and whisper, calling me a stumbling block and a bad influence. I felt closer to her, then. My friends were shunning me, in routine Jehovah’s Witness fashion, and I had nobody left but my family. I clung to them.
A few months after I was kicked out, an article appeared that instructed Jehovah’s Witnesses to cut family ties with the disfellowshipped. A bad influence is a bad influence. “Bad associations spoil useful habits.” From then on, Mom made damn sure my little sister kept her distance from me, arms crossed and both eyes on us, monitoring our interactions every second of the day. As if I’d infect her with my worldliness. My dad just let it slide, like he always did – there was never any use fighting Mom on religion.
My sister eventually cut me off on her own. She married and moved to Mississippi. She stopped returning my calls. She threw fits when Dad tried to invite me to family gatherings when she was in town. Once, I called her on her hypocrisy – how could she hold against me the same sins she committed? She told me Jehovah’s forgiven her, but I still need to be punished.
I broke the rules, indeed. For that, I’ve been ostracized from my family for 12 years and counting. I’ve been cut off from my younger sister and brother, five of my nieces and nephews, and my parents, not to mention all of my childhood friends. When I tell this story, I usually get pity and an, “I’m sorry, that’s awful.” Like I’m the loser in this awful, twisted game, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
But I haven’t lost.
It took time, but I found my family. The ones who call every week to check in. The ones who fly me home for the holidays because they miss me. The ones who listen to my radio show every Monday from wherever they are, because it makes them feel close to me. The ones who’ve seen me make mistake after mistake and be selfish and completely lose myself, and stand right there next to me, believing in me. I found family and unconditional love. I’ve won.
Because of that, I can be there for the rest of my family, even when they can’t be there for me. My dad, who I used to be so close to; my mom, who I’m so much like it’s scary; my little sister who I shared everything with for so long; my little brother who I miss more than he probably knows; they’ve been devastatingly absent in my life, and they probably always will be. But I’ll be here, holding them all in my heart, whether they want to be there or not. I refuse to let them go. I’ve got no limits on my love. I didn’t learn that from them, but I can share it.