It’s been a few days; I’ve missed two posts. My brain was spinning and I just couldn’t write it down… until it just had to be written. This is how I move forward.
Could I have been anyone other than me? Could I have been… This notion has been bouncing off the plastic walls of my brain for months, maybe years, but this weekend it seemed to infiltrate my dreams too. It cost me good sleep, as I played out in my dreams the stuff that’s been nagging at me for months. Then, I got in my car and there was Dave Matthews (Oh Dave, how I love you, Matthews) singing Dancing Nancies (listen with lyrics), and the question Could I have been just percolated (super cool live version). (If you don’t know the song, put it on and listen while you read; it’s brilliant.) I should clarify here too: it’s not that I’ve actually been pondering that specific question, but the issues that have been drifting in and out of my thoughts since my Mom first went into hospice, lead to that question eventually. The stuff is deeper, stuff that has been circulating through my brain for most of my life.
As a young child my mother made the decision to move my siblings and I back East to be near her family, but away from my father’s. My parent’s marriage had fractured and my mother was incredibly young, with three small children. I get it now. It seemed easier, safer to her, to bring us where she felt supported. I will never know if it was the best decision for us, because life happens the way it’s going to happen, and you can’t truly look back and guess how it might have gone. All the woulda, coulda, shouldas don’t actually tell you how it would have actually played out. That is the big mystery; and so many of my twisty, tangled thoughts bounce off of that reality, when my brain slips into this groove. I don’t know who I might have been, if things had played out differently. However, lately I am beginning to feel like I’ve come full circle in certain areas, regarding this dilemma.
Who I saw myself as when I was much younger, and was surrounded by my father’s family, has made its way back to me as an adult, and it is nothing short of a big, kid-magical, sparkly gift. Mom took us away from that when we were too young to really have a say, and she did it for her own sanity, her own ideas of how to make it all work. As I’ve gotten older and raised my own children, I’ve thought many times about what I would have done, and how I would have handled the things she had to figure out. Run home to your family seems to be what a lot of young people do, and I get why a twenty-something year old mother of three, whose marriage was not working, would think that her family would provide the missing bits. This was before laws called for parents to remain in close proximity to each other, before father’s had some rights (that’s still an area that’s lacking) and could forbid such a move. My parents were too young to really understand what I figured out along the way: it takes herculean efforts to make a marriage work, raise a family… it’s not a fairy tale, that goes smoothly every minute. So, when too many difficult moments came, Mom took us and started over. (When I was this^^ little, I knew everyone loved me. There was no doubt.)
A childhood that in my mind was filled with aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, family friends, great-grandparents, who loved us and doted on us, a world filled with good things, and unconditional love, changed completely. My mother’s family was not at all like my father’s and from the minute we landed, I began to compartmentalize those differences. I felt very loved by my mother’s family as well, but it was not the same, having lost the other. I know that there are relatives who will cry foul in my perceptions, but I don’t think “unconditional” ever came into play with that side of the family. Mom’s side was a critical bunch, and I figured out early how to keep people happy. Do and say the right thing, whatever the cost. As I got older however, it began to register that saying the wrong thing didn’t just mean a difficult few days, a disagreement, it often led to ties that were cut for good. So many wonderful times, but the conflicts seemed to constantly linger, amongst the older generations. Human frailty, flaws, eventually Huntington’s Disease, and the behaviors that come with it, led to painful breaks that lasted forever. My mother and her older sibling didn’t speak for ten years before her death, and I struggle with the aftermath still. I struggle to understand how it got so messed up. My mother felt very alone when she was dying, completely aware that there were no flowers (unless my sister and I brought them), no cards, no calls. One letter was sent, but with no pardons, no I love yous.
Long before she was dying, this reality sunk in with me, and I’d come to see that within my Mom’s family I was fine: as long as I didn’t talk about her (or only peripherally), as long as I didn’t ask for anything real. Fractures began to grow when my grandmother died and disagreements about her things, and who should have what, stirred the pot. In my mind, back then, I still believed we could rise above it all and be a family… but it’s never been the same since. As I sat with Mom for her last three months, I thought about this almost every day. I waited for the phone to ring, long after she stopped waiting. If not for her, for me. If the fractures were between her and others, couldn’t I still expect the love and support I once believed in? It never came concretely. One cousin called when my Mom died. She called the day my mom passed, within hours… she had heard from my mother’s aunt, my great aunt. This aunt had called all the cousins, of Mom’s generation, had spoken with my mom’s sibling, but none of them called me. None of them, but the one cousin, who I speak with and still consider myself close to. This same great aunt, my mother’s aunt, had been someone my mother loved very much, and yet, mom never heard a word from her as she deteriorated, these past many years.
To be honest, it seemed warped and twisted that these same people were calling each other to say that my Mom was dead, but never called her when she was dying, and never called me or my siblings to comfort us. That one cousin called me, as I arrived home from hospice and changed my clothes, for the first time in four days, and I was so grateful for that call, that I cried throughout our conversation. In the days and weeks after, there were thoughtful Facebook messages posted, and one card from family, but no one called. It struck me, over and over and over, how strange that was… that a lifetime of ties, seemed to mean little other than Facebook messages in the end. The cousin who called and I are close in age; and while she is another branch of cousins, we’ve shared many things as we’ve aged. I might have predicted she would call, but I never predicted that no one else would… It was the final step in accepting that what I once believed in, does not exist any longer, the way I believed it did when I was young.
When I graduated from high school, my great-grandmother and two aunts sent me a ticket to California, to spend time with them… the first time (really) since my father’s death, when I was ten. Not only had Mom taken us from Dad and his family, he was killed shortly after, and any hope in our young minds of bridging that gap, died with him. We were kids; we didn’t have any clue about those things, and the gulf amongst the adults was too wide. However, at 18, I suddenly had a chance to revisit them, and the place I held in my life for them. It was a wonderful summer, filled with cousins I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade, aunts and uncles, my great-grandmother. So many of the people I’d felt so loved by as a kid, were gone: my father, his parents, a teen cousin that I’d idolized when I was little (also killed young), but here were the ones who remained, there to welcome me home. I felt home. I felt an old familiar love, that had been pushed back for so many years.
It was wonderful, but I was young and my ties were to my mother’s family. I went home after the summer, and didn’t really get that I needed to nurture what I’d re-discovered. Back with Mom and her family, the differences were palpable immediately, but it took years for things to become clear. At 18, I certainly knew that we/they were a tough lot, but I believed that we had each other’s backs, that we were close, and always would be. All of that changed as I grew up, and reality set in. The protective bubble that childhood holds us in, had to burst eventually. My Mom’s behavior had become erratic, she was difficult as we began to figure out that she had HD, and that only drove a deeper wedge as my grandmother’s HD progressed and familial issues brewed. Who got what, who decided what, who did more for so and so, who deserved more, who cared more, who made more effort…? These things festered and my mother and her one sibling never spoke again. Mom and her sister reconnected before my aunt died at 49 of Huntington’s. They spoke often; the time they’d wasted had been sad to watch, but they let go of old issues; and they forgave each other. That seemed to me, how it should be. However, things only grew more distant for my Mom and the rest of her family. In the middle, I found myself outside too… not as clearly, but not included without conditions. I felt so disillusioned and torn, and as my mother grew sicker I began to let go of my own stuff with her, and question why others could not do the same. What was the point? Any issues that still remained, I reasoned, should have been trumped by the knowledge that she was losing everything meaningful in her life, and would die of the disease, as my grandmother and her sister had. If that didn’t call for forgiveness and efforts to heal, what does? If she didn’t get those things from her family, what chance would I ever stand?
In the past ten+ years that all of this was evolving, and I was figuring it out, I had the opportunity to really re-connect on my father’s side. Dad’s sister, my aunt and uncle, live within two hours of where we live now. We had stayed in touch through the years; and when we moved here, things really blossomed. My aunt and uncle have carved out the kind of life and world that many of us dream of. Much in love, after a very long marriage, they retired to a beautiful place and started a hobby, that has become a thriving business, that brings them both fulfillment. Their soaps are selling in some of the biggest area stores and only growing. Because of the business, their home smells of all that is good: fresh lavender, evergreens, rosemary, freshly baked good things, the ocean (just outside their door), all blended together into a wonderful smell that permeates everything. If we get a package from them, it inevitably smells of lavender… not the bottled, sweet stuff, but the fresh smell that makes you relax instantly. When we moved here, our kids were at an age that they loved visiting their great aunt and uncle. There were always fresh cookies, walks on the beach to collect sea glass (a passion that I passed on to them all), working in uncle’s work shop, and feeling the same unconditional love that I had thrived under as a kid.
For me, I found old feelings reawakened, as I got to know my father’s family, through my aunt. Her support in these past years has been bottomless and fierce. Despite old feelings that might have existed, about my mother, that might have caused conflicts, she showed Mom compassion, respect and kindness to the end. It meant the world to my Mom, who (she shared with me) feared that my Dad’s family would never forgive her. My aunt seemed to have gotten what I got: that my mother was young when she took us away, and we have all changed and grown, and that ultimately, my mom’s illness was something that warranted healing, from within, forgiveness…. a gift to my mother and to me. At some of the darkest moments in the past year, she was there to remind me that I am “from strong stock.” I know I get that from both sides, and I’m grateful for the reminder. She was there to remind me to trust in something else and to hold on, when going under seemed conceivable. When I arrive at her home (see Write, Eat, Drink, Sleep, Repeat– she is also the one who bought me the mug that says that) she wraps me in goodness and acceptance and I sleep like a baby. I sleep like the kid I lost all those years ago, when my life changed so very much and the trajectory of who I might have been, who I was becoming, changed forever. Unconditional love, she gives that to me in each thoughtful thing she does, and I shine and glow in that warmth.
And as I rediscover this feeling, this kind of love, it has led me to wonder… more times than I probably should… what would it have looked like if I had kept it all along? Who would I have been? What would I have done with my life? An old question of course: nature vs nurture. My mother loved me, as did her family, but the conditions were plenty and the maze of potential booby traps were endless. It took years to see that. As a kid, I loved my cousins, I loved my grandparents, aunts and uncles… I thought that was a solid thing that could not be broken; but as an adult I learned that hurt can run deep, and fractures spread out and dissolve childhood strongholds. Relationships morph as do the people. Having seen other family members turn their backs on each other, I had imagined I would never do the same. I held on firmly to ties that I thought would always mean something; but have since learned that they don’t. The holding on, only causes holding back and like the magazines that piled up in my office, the old feelings clutter my head. Accepting things: relationships, people, histories, for what they are and not what they were, or what I wish them to be, frees me to see the good that I have on both sides of my family… instead of wishing for something that’s not there.
This is not an indictment of one side, versus another, nor am I saying that one aunt is better than any other, or any other family member. It’s not about not loving some, and loving others. It’s about accepting where things really are now, and who people I love and have loved, are now. It’s choosing to not be like the generation(s) before me. It’s not waiting for things to change back or hoping for things to be something they’re not. It’s about letting go of worrying about making a mistake that will end it all. I’m saying that it’s profound to rediscover something I lost, so long ago. I am saying that it’s so sweet to rediscover, at this point in life, that someone (outside the family I’ve created with my husband and children) really does have my back, and loves me: foibles and flaws included. When my aunt sent us the Oscar for our recent Oscar party, it was the thought that went into it: the knowledge of what would make me smile, the hug that jumped out of the box with it, that brought tears to my eyes. She sent it because she knows me so well, and knew what would make me happy. The love that I feel from my aunt and uncle is a familiar love, that I felt at the start and then lost track of for a while. It has been a journey that has brought me full circle. I knew this love when I was a child and my father, my mother and my Dad’s family folded me up in it. I knew it in each smile that greeted me, each hug, and in each lap that held me. The memory of warm hands holding mine, and the knowledge that I was loved so much, no matter what, has stayed with me, waiting for me to rediscover that feeling all over again. It’s a love story, that has come full circle, and it fills me with gratitude and peace. As Dave says: Could I have been, anyone other than me?
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