I was in my forties when I found my lost siblings. Not one, but three. No longer was I a middle child, third of five—a place that had long defined me. Mediator, peacekeeper, scapegoat, rebel. Everything shifted with the uncovering of this family secret.
When I was a kid, my brother, three years senior, told me I was adopted. I believed him. I have hazel eyes and auburn hair. My siblings have green eyes and dark hair. I have “sallow skin,” as my mother likes to remind me. Hers is alabaster. She is Black Irish, a genetic trace belonging to the time when North African pirates invaded Ireland, the land of her paternal roots. While my reddish tones and freckles were coded by the red-haired Irish, people say that I look like my father, Ukrainian through-and-through. Aged and faded photos validate a body structure that replicates my Gedo’s—proportionately long legs, arms and fingers, a shorter torso, and slight build with a facial structure akin to my Baba’s oblong face with high cheekbones and solid chin—a trace of her Siberian ancestry.
I didn’t know what sallow meant, but I could feel that it was not enviable. My mother’s elongated pronunciation twisted her mouth, telling much more than just her dislike for the color. Whenever I heard or saw Snow White, I thought of my mother—ebony hair, alabaster skin, green eyes, and red lips. I was not like her. A knowing that accompanied my deep-rooted feeling that I did not belong.
Tales of adoption were plausible; as the apparent third child, there are very few photos of me as a child. Those that exist are readily countable and containable in one partial photo album. Keepsakes passed through generations. Kodak spools dropped at the local photography shop, miraculously transformed into glossy print photographs. Treasures collected at weekly intervals, rekindling the special place print photos once had in our lives. Each image developed and processed in the dark room, an operation that took time.
My mother had painstakingly licked four paper corners to fasten each photo into an album. Each corner of every photo was tenderly stuffed into little pockets, measured and mounted on black construction paper. Some photos were further protected behind cellophane or parchment paper that twinned each paper page. My older sister had two albums devoted entirely to her, as did my brother. Not only were there more photos of each of them, but they were also dressed up. My sister in adorable dresses and shiny black Mary Janes, my brother with button-down shirts and bow ties, lovingly held by aunties, uncles, and grandparents in front of shiny automobiles and prize yellow roses.
One of the darling photos of my brother shows his beloved suede holster slung to his hips with two silver pistols that shot caps. He wears a straw cowboy hat, a whistle around his neck, and a pair of cowboy boots. There are not many photos that capture him looking away from the camera. He is happy. I remember the thrill of pulling the hammer against the little red caps that dotted rolled paper and spun from the chamber. When he wouldn’t share his pistols, I snuck short strips of caps and discovered that if struck firmly, they would bang and smoke. Even without a pistol, the pop was electric.
When I was five, my mother gave birth to premature identical twin girls. At just over four pounds, it was dramatic to see both cradled, one in each of my father’s hands. He had thick, wide palms from farming. His were working hands, hewn like his mother’s. Until he died at eighty-three, they found joy and belonging with accordion, clarinet, and saxophone keys. This memory of balancing babies reminds me of exhibitions at traveling summer fairs—small people, the strong man, and the bearded lady. At that time, identical twins were an uncommon sight. In our house, this display demonstrated both their fragility and his prowess.
Of course, there were endless photos of the twins. In the early years, always in matching homemade outfits, they donned adoring pigtails—cute horns protruding from each side of their heads. Two-by-two, those pig-curls translated into four times the attention, four times the photos. It was this doubling adorability that enabled them to escape the horrific home haircuts I endured until junior high. Both Mom and Dad enjoyed using scissors: uneven bangs, stick-ups at my crown, even dreadful uneven sides. But I didn’t escape far. A barber performed my first professional cut, giving me a boy’s, not a girl’s, style, back when gender was rigidified. The twins’ snapshots are still revisited today by family members and neighbors alike who try to tell them apart. Despite my hidden, partial contempt for them, their birth a delight and an injury, I could always tell them apart. They looked similar, of course, but each was completely unique in appearance and personality. Even in elementary school, when they traded clothes to trick their teacher, I knew who was who.
When their birth announcement arrived, I was with my aunt and uncle who owned and operated a country store. The call came on the green rotary dial phone that hung on the kitchen wall. Theirs had a curly cord, at least ten feet long. I loved it, wrapping the cord around my fingers and wrist, stacking the coils as if precious jewels. In great excitement, Aunty Anne announced I had a baby sister. Staying on the phone, she shooed me to the store with the news, where my uncle and neighbors were already engaged in morning gossip. Hours later, in a big fuss, uncommon for my aunt, she told me again that I had a baby sister. I told her that I knew, but she assured me that I had another and instructed me to run back to the store and tell my uncle. I did as I was told, but was more or less scolded for being a storyteller. When Dad got off the combine and stopped at the store on the way to the hospital, the truth was confirmed.
While Dad continued to combine, Baba and Gedo took us to town to see them. Gedo parked at the back of the hospital under elms to keep us cool. It was a hot, dry October—no stopping until the grain was in the bins. We were allowed to open the windows but were instructed not to get out of the car. I remember this precisely because I was stuck on the hump in the middle of the back seat, bare legs sticking to ruby red vinyl. The hump, an undesirable place, was mine for ten more years, but the middle was mine for thirty more.
We stared out the windshield, anticipating the show of our new sisters. Mom appeared in the window and waved. She left and returned holding a white flannel bundle out the window, then she was gone. We waited. She reappeared and again held out a white flannel bundle and then it was over. I was confused. Was it a trick? How did we know there were two? It took fourteen more days before it was verified. Once they arrived home, however, everything changed. Five precious years of being the youngest, at home with my mom while my brother and sister went to school, ended abruptly. It was then that I started to suck my thumb.
My younger sisters were not the only twins in our family. Mom’s Grandma Laurence was a sister to two sets, both fraternal and identical; her husband, Grandpa Cowie, was brother to one set. In total, three sets of twins. Mom said, as a girl, she wished for twins. And so it was. A secret only fully revealed during my first family constellation, a method used to explore inherited family trauma.
This phenomenological approach helps to discern and describe hidden patterns that either allow or obstruct love to flow within families. Like any phenomenological study, patterns appear that uncover structures of a particular phenomenon. Love, in this context, can be likened to flows of energy that conjoin all elements, visible and invisible, of a unit. When we act according to its demands and refrain from doing what harms it, love flourishes within a family. A family is a system, a whole with a soul, including the ostracized uncle, disowned (grand)parent, and miscarried or lost child.
While orders of love sound trite, it holds veracity. Many African and Indigenous cosmologies respect the dead and even speak to them through a living family member. Death is central to life; we cannot live with depth without encountering it. Death demands living in ways that honor it. I have witnessed this ethic often through inherited family trauma methods and training. If we do not align with the dead, they will impact our lives in order to make it so. Whether literal or metaphoric, gestures from the ancestors seek to connect us to their stories—to the “forms that are neglected, forgotten, and feared.”
Most of us have forgotten or deny this system of mutuality, a law of reciprocity between the living and the dead.
I had recently returned from teaching internationally and struggled to settle after my move back to Canada. I had been away more or less since I graduated high school. A nomadic life put me at ease and kept me at the edge of living, never moving too far toward the center. Since seventeen, I had not lived in any one place longer than two years and I was struggling at year four in a place that did not resonate with me.
During an evening workshop, I was selected from among thirty people to present an issue for a systemic family constellation. My issue: I didn’t feel that I belonged. I was instructed to select energetic representatives for each of my siblings, someone to represent me, and then to place them in their birth order. I placed my eldest sister, my older brother, and then my younger sisters, the twins. I invited and placed a woman in the middle of this line to represent me. We were five lined-up, just like when we were kids. None of the representatives were comfortable in their ordering. Not only were they restless, but also each wanted to step away from the one who stood next to them. It was an unsettling image.
Heinz Stark, the German facilitator, instructed my sibling representatives to move until they felt settled. My sibling line spread apart. No one changed position, yet each took greater distance from the other, except for the twins. One by one, Stark put other reps in the line. First, he placed a person ahead of my oldest sister; she began to settle. Then he placed a person after her but before my brother; he settled. Stark removed my representative and placed me in her position. I felt uneasy. I looked down the line to where my younger sisters’ reps stood. I liked to see them there and I was irritable. Stark added one more into the line; she had red hair and hazel-green eyes. She stood ahead of me and after my brother. For the first time in my life, my body sunk into my feet. I anchored. Rooted in place. We looked at each other and smiled. She took my hands; I can feel the smile now as the resonance of that happening refills my current room. My shoulders drop as I describe what happened. I notice my rapid heartbeat slow. A sense of joy and calm spreads through me as I sit in this image and attune to its field where secrets emerge unconcealed.
In the days that follow, I am caught between the lingering somatic residue of the experience and the particulars of the new image. I call Mom and without preamble ask about my lost siblings. She speaks without hesitation, perhaps relieved to finally speak of them. I learn the name and birthdate of my oldest brother, Robert Bruce, who was born whole and beautiful and alive. That he was named and no one had ever spoken of him remains painful. And Mom shares what she knows of the others. It is as if there has been a pact, a vow of secrecy, denying their existence.
Families function by implicit and explicit rules, although, for the most part, they remain hidden. Family members are often not aware of them. They are taken for granted, unexplained but obvious—“in our family we do this.” To a degree, the family—or at least its rules and secrets—bind our behaviors and perceptions. We keep accounts; we track, we tally one another’s contributions to the family. This underlying code determines the scale of merits, advantages, obligations, and responsibilities, which are learned reactions grounded in the family’s blood story—socioeconomic, ethnic, even geographic, which we uncover little by little—even if there is no written record.
As for the third set of twins that my mother conceived, in the months that followed this constellation, other events, including medical procedures, began to reveal evidence of a vanished twin while I was in utero. Often in cases of a vanishing twin, one twin absorbs the other, especially with identical twins. When I attended a second constellation later that year, the facilitator, unsolicited, asked me if I wanted to work with the twin in my liver. Her question shocked me. Disoriented, I didn’t. I felt a deep attachment to her, my twin, and could not imagine displacing her from my body. Her invisible presence was all that I had ever known—this belonging. She vanished once; I would not banish her again. Today, I wish that I had proceeded with the constellation as images have their own agency. She has her own agency. But in that moment, I could not receive the offering that could have gifted this sister her own place.
Yes, I have another brother, RB. He is the first child, my first sibling. My eldest sister R is really number two. A position she resists. Mom confirmed that my second brother G was a fraternal twin—they number three and four; she was lost early in the second trimester. He was born at 26 weeks at two and a half pounds. He spent ten weeks in an incubator contradicting the doctor’s prediction of death. He was born with one functioning lung, no hair, no nails, and was tube-fed two ounces of milk every hour of every day until he reached five pounds. Miraculously, he was discharged on his original due date two and a half months later—my birth date. He flourished but has always railed against his perceived “not being included” by his four living sisters. He is right to feel abandoned, but it is by another sister. I am no longer the middle child. I am six of eight.
Just as the individual psyche seeks wholeness through life, so too does the familial psyche. Children, through their innocence, loyalty, and unconditional love, unconsciously commit to those who have been ostracized, rejected, murdered, or disgraced. They faithfully present characteristics, commit deeds and acts, embody illness or disabilities, and mirror behaviors all in service of bringing consciousness to the members who have been excluded. When these children grow up, they often continue to act in “innocent” ways, seeking to bring wholeness to the family system, regardless of the cost to themselves. But these ways actually jeopardize the children’s fullness. From a family-soul point of view, one might say that its integration takes precedence over an individual’s. Only when the child-now-adult unlocks from the family complex by becoming conscious of their patterns of loyalty can they attend more deeply to their own actualization.
Despite efforts made to become more conscious of the secrets in my family, only I acknowledge the actual birth order and number of lives in our family of origin.
Too late, I learned that my father buried RB in an unmarked grave. Place unknown.
Fates loosened, yet tied. We unbind ourselves as we reveal the concealed.
I was in my forties when I lost my son—JO—my first and only child.
 Hillman, J., & Shamdasani, S. (2013). Lament of the dead. Psychology after Jung’s Red Book, p. 96. W. W. Norton.