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I Lost & Gained A Sibling In One Month

Photo: Courtesy of Bianca Heyward.
I was the luckiest sister in the world. I was one of three kids in my family, with the two most wonderful brothers imaginable. Michael had a weird habit of taking apart computers and putting them back together, and, truth be told, he didn’t have many friends growing up. Bobby, the oldest, was an athlete, charming, and very popular among the ladies. The three of us were close: the talk-every-day kind of close, the best-friend kind of close. My brothers held my hand when we crossed the street — even when I was in my 20s.

It wasn’t until recently that I realised how special our relationship was. Our parents divorced in 2007, and my dad remarried a lovely woman, while my brothers and I settled into a new life with my mum in Los Angeles. One by one, my siblings and I left home; I went to college in Pennsylvania, on the other side of the country. But our embraces upon seeing each other just grew stronger.

So I was the luckiest sister in the world — and then I was the most heartbroken. Last summer, on the morning of 21st June, my mother called with devastating news. Bobby had been struggling with substance abuse for a few years, and the day before, he had completed treatment at a rehabilitation centre. He went to my mum’s house to spend the night before moving into a sober-living home. He took some pills. Apparently, after months of detoxing, his body couldn’t handle it. On the phone, all my mother could say was, “Bobby... he didn’t wake up... you have to come home.”

My adorable oldest brother had died in his sleep at age 30, in my childhood bed. I can’t describe exactly what happened after that phone call. It was a blur. I got on the next flight from New York back home to L.A. I remember people staring at me at the airport as I cried and stumbled to my gate. A childhood friend had called to say she would meet me at the airport when I arrived. She said that Michael, my parents, the rabbi, and the paramedics were at the house. She said that my mother, father, and brother had said goodbye to Bobby while his cold body lay on my bed, before he was carried out by the coroner in a body bag.

I remember opening my computer on the flight home, connecting to wi-fi, going on Facebook, and seeing the news about Bobby, who had worked in the entertainment industry for several years, all over my news feed. Why are people writing this? How do they know? I don’t even really know. I remember seeing Michael’s Facebook status update, announcing the news to the world. I remember seeing it on TMZ, Us Weekly, E! Online... I felt exposed, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Photo: Courtesy of Bianca Heyward.
In the weeks that followed, I went numb, on the deepest level — just numb. No more tears, no more feelings, just nothing. And then, just a little over a month later, in August, my dad called. More news to deal with: He and his wife were on their way to visit a little girl who was in foster care and in need of a nice family to adopt her. To be honest, I didn’t think too much of it at the time, given how difficult it is to adopt a child. But to my complete shock, this time, the adoption process moved at the speed of light: Two weeks later, my dad had a new daughter — and I had a little sister.

Not that I wanted one. My whole life, I had been the only girl in the family, and the youngest child. Now, that was over, too. The imaginary Novocaine I had so generously applied after Bobby’s death to stop from feeling was beginning to wear off, and I desperately wanted it back. I cried alone in the bathroom for hours. As it happened, I was visiting my father on the East Coast during the week that the adoption was finalised. Over dinner one night, I tried to be diplomatic and say some bullshit line about how I was really happy for them and the little girl… but I couldn’t manage it. Soon, my true feelings came out: I asked my dad how he could even begin to talk to me about gaining a new sibling when I had just lost one — how could he be so callous?

I didn’t feel bad about what I said. If anything, I felt relieved. I was both disgusted and disappointed by what my dad and step-mum had done. But at the same time, I knew what they had been through to make this happen. They didn’t plan for it to work at this particular moment. Yeah, it wasn’t great timing, but it was now or never, and they had jumped on the chance. They weren't being insensitive; they were being brave.

And then, a weird thing happened. Within the course of a week, my feelings evolved — rapidly, and before I'd even met my new sister. It was as if my brain suddenly allowed my heart to see her for who she was, not what she represented at that particular moment — the worst moment — of my life. I learned more about her. She was a little girl with light-brown hair, a huge personality, and a love of Taylor Swift that rivals mine. For the first seven years of her life, she had never known or experienced family like I had.

My sister’s story is not mine to tell, so I won’t. But I will say this: If anybody deserved a second chance at life, it was her.
Michael met our new sister in person a month before I did, and I milked him for every detail. Then, I got to know her through FaceTime. She’s beautiful, like your average Frozen-loving second-grader, but wise beyond her years. When we said goodnight, the “I love you” came easily.

The turnaround in my own feelings was so quick, it blew my mind. It didn’t make sense. How could I honour my new sister while still deep in the haze of grief over the death of my brother? My father told me I had to tell my mother — my fragile, broken, mourning mother — about my new sister, before she found out from someone else. I just couldn’t do it. So Michael sat our mum down, told her the news, and braced for outrage. But to everyone’s surprise, my mum was… happy.

A few weeks ago, I went home to visit my family and finally met my new sister face-to-face. As I was getting out of the car, I saw her standing outside the house, waiting for me. We were both a little nervous, but I went straight in for a big hug and swept her up in my arms. I needed her to know right away that she was my family, and that I was hers.

What I’m about to say, you can’t hold me to, because it’s all so new. But as of now, I no longer feel guilty about letting a stranger into a very sacred part of my heart just weeks after losing someone who helped shape that heart. While sitting shiva for Bobby, his friends and other family members vowed to honour his memory with different acts of kindness and gratitude. I felt ashamed that I, his sister, couldn’t join in. I thought and thought, but I drew a blank. But not anymore.

I see a sense of purpose in this little girl. I can help her grow and learn; I can be a source of strength for her, someone she can turn to. That’s what Bobby was for me, and I will keep those values alive for my sister. I feel lucky again — devastated by what I’ve lost, but lifted up by a 7-year-old who calls me “Bianki.”