The only image I had of my half sister growing up was the photo of a girl about 8, standing in a backyard plastic pool with one hand on her hip, her head cocked to the side. Her hair was pulled into a high side-ponytail with a fat braid. She had on a blue-and-white polka-dot bathing suit with white frills around the collar, and a huge smile on her face.
I would spend hours staring at that picture. She looked so much like our father, and a lot like me.
My sister Julie was the product of our father’s first marriage. He and her mother divorced around the time of the picture, when she was 8. Then our dad married my mother, and I was born six years later. I was raised by our dad starting at about 2, after my mom left to “find herself.” Julie and I both grew up as only children in one-parent households — she was without our dad, and I was without my mom.
My sister told me recently that she remembers meeting me for the first time when I was a baby. Our dad took my mom and me to meet her. We all went to the Chicago zoo, where Julie pushed me in the stroller, fed me a bottle, fawned over me. She says she couldn’t take her eyes off me. The next time we were together was at her high school graduation. I was 10, and all I can recall was how stunningly beautiful she was. Similar to the girl in the photo, but more like a movie star.
After she graduated college, Julie moved to Washington D.C., where, as a teenager, I was by then living with my mother. Perhaps surprisingly, it was actually my mother who encouraged me and my sister to have a relationship.
My mom began inviting Julie over for dinner a couple of times a week. Those dinners inevitably ended with my sister and I staying up late talking, laughing and sneaking my mother’s cigarettes. I was 14 and she was 22. We talked a lot about boys, of course. I told her about my boyfriend at the time, a handsome drummer. I even told her when I lost my virginity to him. She told me about growing up in Gary, Ind., and living with her mother and grandparents. She told me about her grandfather, who was cruel to her and her mother, she said — he apparently hated our father for leaving, and was particularly mean to Julie for looking so much like him.
I told her what our father was like. That he would spend hours shopping for clothes. That he had a lot of girlfriends, but no one he was serious about. How we moved almost yearly to a new house because he always hated something about where we lived and how hard it was for me to change schools all the time. I told her how much I hated growing up without a mother around, and how jealous of her I was that she had her mother when she was a kid.
Ultimately, Julie came to see me in every play I was in in high school, and we celebrated birthdays together. She even came with us on our annual summer vacations in Vermont. We shared our life secrets with each other, and slowly we began building our friendship.
It was around this time that Julie’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. My mother suggested that we drive Julie from D.C. to Gary for Thanksgiving to see her, and I remember that trip because it was a 10-hour drive and my sister spoke little and never smiled once. A few months later, Julie called crying to tell me that her mother was gone. I was the first call she’d made. In that moment, our friendship was cemented forever.
In the following years, I went off to college and Julie moved first to California and then to Alaska. She got married and had a daughter. I graduated from college and moved around, then settled in D.C., where I married and had my son.
In 2006, my mother died, and four years later my first husband and I split up. Julie stepped in as a maternal figure for me during those years; she became my rock during the divorce.
She talked me through the hell of shared custody, took every call and never judged me, even when I was dating someone she knew wasn’t good enough. I would call her in tears, feeling the isolation of being single and living alone, and days later a handmade card, painted with hearts and quotes about living in the moment and enjoying life’s journey, would arrive in my mailbox.
She was there when I began forging a career, supporting every decision when I was paralyzed with fear. When I took a job that was 3,000 miles away from my son, I would call her crying and she patiently listened and offered sound advice. And because I was feeling so lost and far from family, she flew to New York from Anchorage and took me to dinner and to see “The Color Purple” on Broadway, a story about two sisters with an unbreakable bond, who’re separated as children, but who end up reuniting. Julie, like many Black women in my life — editors, mentors — scooped me up in my darkest hour and pushed me forward with strong, loving arms with the full knowledge that no matter what they’d always be there for me.
In the years during our father’s illness, because I asked her to, Julie began to spend more and more time with him. She came to San Diego for Thanksgiving. When he had surgery, she flew in to be there, as much for me as for him. It wasn’t easy for her to be there for him, because he’d rarely been there for her. She held his hand and listened to his apologies to her. And when he died, she came again to San Diego to help me clear out his apartment and plan his memorial — she came to hold my hand and support me as I suffered through his death.
Now, although I mourn our father’s death almost daily, it pains me to hear her say that she doesn’t mourn him at all; she never forgave him for being absent. But at the same time, she never resented or blamed me. She tells me that I was the good thing that came out of the pain.
The funny thing is, even though Julie and I grew up apart and didn’t know each other until later in our lives, we are a lot alike. We don’t have shared childhood memories. But when we start to laugh about something, we laugh until we almost pee. That’s how it’s been in the four decades since we first got to know each other; it remains that way today. It gives me grounding to know that she’s in the world, because I know I will always have a shoulder to lay my head on.
You can’t pick your family, but we found each other. And like friends, we chose each other.
Rebekah Sager is a journalist and author who has contributed to The Washington Post, the Hollywood Reporter, Playboy, VICE and more.