I frequently feel guilty when my daughter tells me she’s bored. She’s an only child who, quite honestly, is capable of entertaining herself, but I know that she sometimes yearns for a sibling—someone to confide in, play games with, and, of course, commiserate with about her unfair parents. I get it. A sibling, despite the rivalry, is a built-in playmate.
Growing up, my sister and I didn’t always get along. We’d fight over silly things, and serious things, but at least we had each other. We kept one another company on Saturday afternoons, during long winter days and on endless car trips. We shared toys and books, and on occasion, clothes (but never, ever boyfriends). Most importantly, we supported each other through the illness and eventual death of our mother.
Despite losing the same person, I don’t expect that my sister and I grieved exactly the same way. She had lived near our parents and saw them on a weekly basis. I, on the other hand, lived in another country and had to contend with frequent phone calls between occasional visits. There’s no doubt that my sister felt mom’s physical absence more deeply, but emotionally we were both gutted. She was our mother and she was gone.
I don’t regret having an only child but I do worry about my daughter facing life’s hardships alone. It’s during our most difficult challenges that we realize the sheer value of our siblings.
Sisters Beena and Sadhana, in Saleema Nawaz’s book Bone and Bread, don’t have a lot of memories of their father. Dead of a heart attack in his early forties, he only lives on through stories told to them by their mother and the possessions he left behind. The young sisters adjust to a one-parent home and flourish despite the loss. Their mother, in her free-spirited and caring manner, becomes their whole world.
It is her death, accidental and tragic, that rocks them. Orphaned as young teenagers, they have nowhere to turn. Their uncle, the only relative left to raise them, has no experience with children. Their mother’s friends, although eager to help, have their own lives. Left alone, the sisters cling to one another and ride the wake of their grief.
Beena’s despair causes her to seek comfort in the arms of a local boy: one who takes advantage of her fragility and naivety. Pregnant at sixteen, Beena drops out of school to raise her son with Sadhana’s help. Yet Sadhana has her own demons; her sadness has rooted itself in her relationship with food. Beena does everything in her power to get Sadhana the help she needs, but in the end, each sister has to forge her own path through life.
Bone and Bread opens with Sadhana’s death from complications of anorexia. It is a story of grief, yes, but also one of the bonds between sisters, shared memories, familial expectations, and the tumultuous yet enduring love of those with shared tragedy.
Saleema Nawaz is the author of the short story collection Mother Superior and winner of the prestigious Writers’ Trust of Canada / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Bone and Bread is shortlisted on CBC’s Canada Reads 2016. House of Anansi, 2013.