If you are estranged from a family member, you might not know whether he or she is still alive. This is an odd concept for many of my friends whose families vacation together, babysit each other’s kids, and celebrate every holiday together. Would anyone tell me, I wonder, if my sister died? And what would my reaction be? Assuming I didn’t hear about it months after the fact, would I go to her funeral? Would anyone there know who I was? Would they even know she had a sister?
You see, I come from a long line of family estrangement Olympians. We’re not amateurs here given to snits that last a week or two. Ruptures aren’t measured in months or years but in decades. Children go from diapers to driving cars during our estrangements. People get gray hair and lose their hearing. They change careers and move across the country. But because we are estranged, people stay in the same emotional place as they were when the break occurred. If someone was angry, frustrated, quick to react, unthinking in words chosen, she stays that way, frozen forever as someone to cast out, someone whose casting out was justified. Even though the one casted out might now be serene and compassionate, introspective and calm, careful and measured.
My sister is 70 today, assuming she is still alive. We haven’t spoken more than two or three sentences in twenty-three years. The last time I saw her, several years ago, she was standing with my brother on a hill in our home town cemetery after the graveside service for our mother. There was no mutual comfort, no shared responsibility for our mother’s funeral or for the taking care of our aging father. An opportunity to reconcile missed by mutual consent.
Years before, deep in a 10-year estrangement with my parents, I’d driven many hours to the same cemetery to pay my respects to my grandparents. Driving up the dirt road, turning left at the oak tree, I parked and right away saw two headstones with my parents’ names on them. “Oh my God, my parents have died,” I told my husband. “They died and no one told me.” I’d imagined this happening for years, figuring that the only way I would ever know they were dead would be that Christmas would pass without getting a Christmas card from them – our only contact for years.
But they hadn’t died, not yet. In typical fashion, they had, however, planned ahead. Both headstones were ready for them with only the end date to be filled in. We stayed not long. Unnerved, I wanted to get out of the cemetery, away from the shade of the oak tree, and be long on the road away from the decisions I’d made that resulted in our estrangement.
I’m not happy that my sister and I are estranged nor do I feel it’s justified on either end. The loss is enormous, a loss so big I won’t understand it until we are reconciled. And yes, I’ve tried to make things different but to no avail. The person who was my sister doesn’t want that role. “I have everything I need,” she told me the last time I contacted her.
I paused at that line in her email. So tight and final. She doesn’t need what I have to offer. She doesn’t need a sister. She just doesn’t. But I think I still do.
In 2008, I wrote a piece published in Newsweek called “The Power of ‘I Am Sorry’.” It’s about ending the estrangement with my parents. Many people have found it to be helpful in sorting out their own situations. Here’s the link. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/09/05/the-power-of-i-am-sorry.html