Sunday, May 30, 2010

On Sibling Betrayal

For the past 23 years or so, I thought I had developed a great relationship with my older sister; "Gigi" is what I call her on my blog. We weren't close growing up - she always seemed much older than the four calendar years that separated our birthdates.

She was the rebellious older kid, the moody and boy-crazy teenager who drove my parents to distraction. There was just no connection...they didn't understand their daughter and were unable to parent her constructively as a result. They probably did a lot of damage and were at the root of her self-destructive choices in men and life.

My parents and sister fought a lot; I tried to keep my head down and didn't have as much trouble toeing their line and complying with their expectations (which were basically "do what we tell you, when we tell you, and don't have an opinion that differs from ours"). She moved out on her own when she was 18 (I was 14) and we really had nothing much to do with each other for the next 12 years. There was no animosity or anything - we just had nothing much in common and were absorbed in our own young lives.

She had chosen to remain in eastern Canada when my father retired and moved my mother and me back to the west coast when I was entering my last year of high school. She did come out west for a brief stint, but the same problems of my parents trying to control her again produced conflict, and she went east permanently to live - eventually residing 3,000 km away from our parents and me.

I made efforts to visit Gigi, starting in about 1986. She and her then-husband were kind and gracious hosts - we had a nice time together and started to build an adult relationship. We shared many common experiences and views with respect to our upbringing, and some of the more staggering shortcomings of our parents (continuous infidelities on both their parts, continual raging fights over money, and total obliviousness towards the personal natures and emotional needs of their daughters).

It was nice to be able to have someone with whom I could "sanity check" with respect to my upbringing - someone who was there and witnessed/experienced it all as well. We laughed long and loud about a lot of it - it was either that, or cry. We were great kids who had been cursed with absolutely dysfunctional parents who were incapable of insight, growth or change.

I guess Gigi decided she had to stay away for her own mental health. From 1976 to 1995, I was the offspring who dealt with both our parents in every way - from the good stuff (which consisted of me ensuring all birthdays and major holidays were taken care of - I did all the gift buying, hosting and cooking for these events) to the bad stuff, and there was mostly bad stuff. No 23 year old should have to come home from work to find her father waiting on the doorstep of her apartment, in tears and needing to unload about the latest crisis with her mother. No daughter should be pressured/guilted into skipping her university classes to drive her mother around to hotel after hotel, and be sent in to grill the front desk staff in her mother's effort to catch the daughter's father cheating. I was even dragged into their (very brief) stint of marriage counselling with a psychiatrist(!) when that doctor could not figure them out nor find a way to help them. Gigi got to skip all of this.

In 1995, when our father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Gigi came west (my parents paid for her flight, as usual) and together we nursed him for the three short weeks up until his death at home. With his passing I became our mother's keeper, and what a job that proved to be.

By the summer of 1998 my mother was so far off her rocker that I actually had to have her involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for 30 days. Gigi did not come out to help during this time, and had very little concept of the crisis. It was then one nightmare after another with our mother - a horrendous rollercoaster - 11 solid years of bi-polar, obsessive compulsive, narcisisstic behaviour, all of which I had to manage without one ounce of involvement or support from my absent sister.

I wanted to have a relationship with my sister and always looked out for her interests with our mother. I would not countenance any criticism from our mother of Gigi and always assured Gigi I was looking out for her re: eventual inheritance (our mother was very comfortably off, but a hoarder who constantly alluded to the fact she may leave it all to charity).

Since 2003, my husband and I flew Gigi out west 3 to 4 times on our airmiles and hosted her visits at our beachfront cottage (these visits were secret from our mother, as Gigi did not want to see her). Gigi was also our guest in Mexico at our little condo there. I kind of thought of Gigi, my husband and me as the Three Muskateers - all for one and one for all. I thought we had each others' backs. Not so, it turns out.

Our mother had a stroke in January 2009, and I had to take over all her affairs via the legal Power of Attorney she had granted me several years prior. Her financial affairs were very secure, but a total mess - investments spread all over Hell's half acre. It took me a minimum of 60 hours just to track it all down at various financial institutions, document it, and get a handle on managing it, as she was headed for a nursing home. This was on top of dealing with the health system and our mother's indescribable behaviour and condition post-stroke. It was beyond horrendous and exhausting in the extreme.

I kept my sister fully apprised of everything by phone and in writing, and included her in a trip to see a lawyer, when she visited our mother for a week about a month after the stroke. We needed what the lawyer called a "Game Plan Memo" that would outline my future actions as Power of Attorney and the handling/management of our mother's assets.

What was particularly problematic was that I was on title of our mother's waterfront condo, and it was also willed to me, when what my mother actually now intended was for my sister to inherit the condo and for me to get the equivalent value in cash from her estate (i.e., "equal consideration"). I had been working with a lawyer to figure out the best way to get the condo solely in my sister's name (with "life interest" to our mother), with "equal consideration" specified for me, so we'd all know where we stood and everyone's interests were fairly looked after.

For 5 months this "Game Plan Memo" was in the works and Gigi never voiced any concerns, apart from the fact that our mother should have independent legal advice before enacting any part of the plan. The problem with this was our mother's psychiatric issues - which made it virtually impossible to get her to commit to any legal agreement and stick with it. She was legally "competent" but her propensity for "flip flopping" would make a dying fish on a dock look stationary.

No improvement in our mother's condition, and certain financial circumstances in my life meant that by July 2009 it looked logical to enact the Game Plan Memo - to put the quarter million dollar+ condo solely in Gigi's name with "life interest" to our mother, and to specify that I had sole right to the equivalent value in cash from our mother's assets/estate.

I called Gigi to discuss this and get her agreement to proceed, and let her know I would like to be able to access some (not all) of the over $250K in "equal consideration." I thought this would be a pro forma discussion because the written details had been known and discussed for months between us, and our mother - who understood and had no objections, and it had been reviewed by two lawyers (Gigi's and mine). Wrong.

Gigi calmly proceeded to tell me she had been expecting this call and would have no part in "bailing" me out of what she deemed to be my self-created financial predicament, that I could not "use our mother as a bank", that my husband and I live way beyond our means and, yes, too bad about the global financial economic meltdown and related reversals in my finances and consulting business, but we'd made our bed and would have to lie in it. This from the woman who owns nothing, who earns less than minimum wage teaching yoga, and who actually lives on a few hundred a month stipend from her ailing, geriatric second husband.

I think I now know how an animal feels when the jaws of a well-concealed trap snap shut on it. Gigi was simply laying low and waiting for me to make this move. She'd had ample opportunity for months previously to tell me she was not on board with the Game Plan Memo, and did not do so. Sly.

Gigi wanted our mother's condo in her name and was willing for that aspect of the Game Plan Memo to proceed; what she vehemently objected to was my accessing any money ("equal consideration") any time in advance of our mother's death. In other words, she was completely happy to possibly get an appreciating asset completely in her own name, and to make me wait to access equal value, even though she knew I had need of some money now.

She was so committed to "foiling" what she called my "little financial bailout plan", that she then wrote our mother and told her she actually no longer wanted the condo, thereby negating the "equal consideration" claim she thought I would have. She also demanded to be made co-executor of our mother's will, offering the reason for this request as the fact that my husband will outlive hers??

Gigi then told me, "If you need some money, you need to ask our mother directly." So, I did ask our mother for some money to pay down our substantial condo remediation loan (we were unlucky enough to have bought into a "leaky condo") and, lo and behold, with the approval of her independent investment advisor, our mother gave me a considerable amount of money towards paying off that loan.

Gigi went ballistic. Even though I then put it in writing to Gigi that I considered this an advance on my eventual inheritance, Gigi was simply furious that I got "bailed out." I really felt she wanted to see me and my husband hurting and having to liquidate real estate investments at a loss, in order to stay afloat in a time of financial duress.

It was so hurtful to realize she wanted to see me suffer. I realized with horror that she had likely resented me and judged our lifestyle for years, even while she was benefitting from it (e.g., me constantly buffering her from our mother, ensuring our mother kept her in the will, and also providing her with nice vacations).

She did some nice things for me during these years as well, but that is beside the point. We did nice things for each other, but she wound up seriously betraying me, in that when the chips were down and I really needed her support and understanding, she sanctimoniously told me to reap what she felt I'd sown. And I could feel her visceral satisfaction in communicating that to me.

So I continued to soldier on, dealing alone with all the horrendousness that was our mother's post-stroke condition, behaviour and world. My sister was interested in nothing beyond ensuring her inheritance would be secure.

I was released from all this in January 2010 when our mother died. Since my relationship with my sister had died the previous summer, and our father had died in 1995, I now consider myself "family-of-origin free."

On a recent "Oprah" show, a guest said "The ones who love you when you need them...those are the people who are your family." I agree. My family never really loved me when I needed them, but I am so lucky in that other people have loved me in abundance, and I consider those people to be my true family.

Todo bien. (It's all good.)

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