I wrote my sister a letter to tell her about our very sick brother but she didn’t answer me or call him which was more deadly than the last time I wrote to her when she sent back my letter unopened crammed in an envelope with my name written in hard big letters, so angry-looking I felt small and childish like I’d interrupted something important, a discussion she might have been having with a friend on the lounge chairs on her back porch overlooking a valley resplendent with trees and a running creek where in a different time we might have ridden horses, their hooves clicking smartly on the wet rocks.
Eight years ago, after visiting my parents’ graves in Hastings, Michigan, after arranging flowers and sprinkling birdseed to attract the finches my father loved, and after wiping off the moss that had already started to spread on their headstones, I went with my husband to our place on Lake Superior, sat in an old blue chair that belonged to my husband’s cousin’s mother and I wrote the story of my 12-year estrangement from my parents.
I wrote the piece in one sitting and before I got up out of the chair, I sent it to Newsweek to be considered for their Lives column.
A few weeks later, an editor called me to say they wanted to print the piece.
She asked me questions, wanted to know the details, wondered why a 12-year estrangement would be the result of a bad telephone conversation with my mother. There was no good answer for that. There was only my story. Here’s what happened, I said. This is the bad thing that happened to me and my family and this is how we were redeemed. This is the grace fractured families hope for but avoid mostly because it involves shedding everything that came before. That, by itself, is a foreign concept to most people, certainly it was to me until I surrendered to reconciliation.
She decided to believe me. Not a word in the piece was changed. I learned then that when a story is through and through true, it will arrange itself on a page, each bead in exactly the right place on the necklace. For that time and place in the writer’s heart.
Today, an old friend mentioned this piece. He said it should be required reading for families. So I’m linking to it here. It’s called The Power of Saying You’re Sorry.
I end with saying again what was on the billboard I saw on the way to reconciling with my parents after ten years gone: “If you think it’s too late to make things right, you’re wrong.” Maybe this will help someone you know. Maybe it will help you.
So I’ve been in California for the past few days picking up rope.
I’ve seen some relatives I haven’t seen for many years and others I’d never met but who looked familiar to me like they might have been sitting at the children’s table at Thanksgiving dinner for the past ten years. “You look like a hundred people I know,” I said to the 13-year old son of one of my nephews. His short hair reminded me of my brother’s 50’s butch haircut, clean and eager like the Boy Scout he was. This boy was smiling as if he had been waiting for me.
He wasn’t. He was waiting for the grandmother he has never met. But I brought clues about her, random dots he could start to connect. His grandmother, my sister, was a mystery to him. So he looked to me for hints about her but he didn’t press when I explained I hadn’t seen her in many years. ‘I can’t tell you why she’s not here,’ I wanted to say but he never asked that question. I’ve learned with children not to answer questions that aren’t asked.
So because I spent time with relatives I hadn’t seen in years and with their children whom I’d never met, and because the event which spurred me to do this was another nephew’s funeral, it made me think hard about family estrangement and its intended and unintended consequences.
One thought I had is that the magic of estrangement is that the estranged person is always oddly present without having to travel or take up a seat. And I think that is the intention although most estranged people would deny it. They want to cast a lifetime curse of puzzlement and self-doubt on their family members. They want to be the distant enigma, the planet found after Pluto, hardest to see but orbiting the sun nonetheless. They enjoy this image in their minds, hoping secretly that the people who were shunned gather to console each other and wonder why. And they get what they want, but because they’re not there to witness it, the joy is muted.
Another thought is that shunned people, though damaged by having been estranged, figure out how to mostly close the original wound of having been left. Notice I say mostly. The bleeding stops and a scar eventually forms but there’s always a tiny area that stays inflamed, a little swollen, it’s the place absentmindedly touched several times a day, just to remember that, however good life may seem, it’s never going to be entirely right. It’s like a small sliver of pencil lead I had in the heel of my hand all through grade school. It stopped hurting but I could always see it there, shadowy gray under my skin.
Estrangement is the nuclear option in family relationships. It is the most powerful weapon, the most feared. ‘I sentence you to my absence forever.’ It is the last word and an unanswerable one. There is no arguing with being shunned. Once someone pulls the plug, they take the outlet with them, the light and all the power. However, eventually, death trumps estrangement. Unless one believes ardently in an afterlife where all the estranged can meet up in one giant reconciliation coffee shop, death ends the contest. There are no tender spots left, no pencil lead under the skin, the old wounds are buried, cremated, gone.
Some, just a tiny bit, is left to the next generation as their inheritance.
The Daily Post: Connected
I read the news of my nephew’s death on Facebook.
I knew it was coming but I didn’t in the way that anyone older finds it so hard to believe that a younger person would die first. We think dying will be linear and orderly with people lined up by age, everyone waiting their turn. Only they don’t. Some people take cuts in line. Others stand patiently for years, eyeing the progress of the line, being ignored by fate, watching others move on, having nothing but happenstance to blame for their long, long wait.
In the comments box, I wrote, “He was my sister’s beautiful boy.” Even though it was nearly a half century ago, I remember him sitting on my sister’s lap, a beautiful blond boy with brown eyes. He fidgeted and squirmed, always wanting something, to be somewhere else, to change what was happening. And she seemed that way, too, uncomfortable, stressed, like so many of us were when the reality of having babies sank in. How long will I be a hostage? we thought. It was a clammy, frightful feeling. Will I ever feel free again? Will I ever shed this skin, this second skin that is stuck to mine like plaster?
She wore her hair in a french twist. It was perfect and very Hollywood. She was thin and blond with hip bones that flared just below her waist. She was older than me by six years, sophisticated, enigmatic. She divulged nothing, sat curled up in an overstuffed chair after her beautiful boy went to bed, smoking long cigarettes and drinking beer. She and her husband had struck out for L.A. on their own a few years before. They’d sold their tiny house in Detroit and packed their silver Corvette with their clothes and favorite records. They moved into an apartment with a carport and she worked at the gas company while he sold cash registers to stores. They lived the California life and became orphans.
For a long time no one went to see them. It was too far. And then people went to see them but they stopped. It became too far again.
My nephew grew up. And I would see him every several years and it would always seem as if he thought I knew more than I did about his life, he wanted me to be wise when I wasn’t, to intervene in a lifetime tangle of his family’s knot, to free the hostage and supervise the new peace. But I never did what he wanted. Because I didn’t know how. His hostage was, after all, my big sister. She was impervious. Varnished many layers. Impenetrable. So I left it there. Left it. Dropped it. No. Set it gently on the grass. And then I disappeared.
When I saw the photo of my nephew’s son on Facebook, his young adolescent face in profile, I wanted to touch his cheek with my fingers. His was the face of my nephew and my sister and of a hundred relatives in scrapbooks and picnics. But I’d never seen him in person nor his brother nor his sister. And now their father was dead. If there had been a rope connecting me to this boy and his brother and sister, it had fallen in a pile the day he died.
Oh. I think. This is the collateral damage of family discord, these children lost to me is the price I should pay. And then I think. No. I should go there and pick up the rope. I can be the kind of person who picks up the rope.
That is the person I want to be now.
Those of you who are estranged from family members but figure you’ll make things right at some point in the future, well, sometimes the future runs out and you lose your chance. That just happened to someone I know. Not to me, thank God, but I sure came close.
Showing up after ten years’ absence when your mother is ill with Alzheimer’s Disease and having her look at you and say, “I never thought I’d see you again,” and realizing that if you had waited, like you wanted to, for another six months to pass before coming home, she would probably forget who you were, all of this is a very big deal. And it’s an important story to tell even if I don’t know exactly how to tell it.
I’d been warned by my father about my mother’s deepening Alzheimer’s Disease or A.D. as he called it in his letters. Our written correspondence had been going on for over a year, the melting of ten years’ worth of silence into drops of questions and information. I told him about his grandchildren, one of whom had been adopted during our estrangement and whom he had never met. I told…
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It didn’t take long for my father to develop an email style. His very first email carried what would become his signature farewell. TIE. Take it easy. Sometimes he added SIT. Stay in touch.
His emails were short, very factual, reporting on his bowling score or his search for an even cheaper internet provider. He ended up going to Walmart for their $8.99 a month deal after changing providers three or four times in the eighteen months he owned a computer, the time between the death of my mother and his own death. It amazed me that he’d buy anything from Walmart after the years of being a small dime store owner always trying to outsmart the ‘big guys.’ In our house, a whole dinner would be spent discussing how to beat K-Mart’s price on Aqua Net, the essential ingredient in the 60’s elaborate beehive hair-dos.
“You just have to get them in the store, Janice,” he would say, as if I was taking notes for when I’d take over the store. Aqua Net was our star loss leader (which I thought was lost leader until this very minute when I Googled it to make sure it meant what I thought, fifty years of lost leadership gone just like that).
Oddly, the store was an interest we shared. How to outfox the competition the only topic of our conversation on the half hour ride from our house to the store. I worked for my dad from the age of 12 to 18. We drove to work together most of the time. And that’s all we talked about, when we talked, which wasn’t much.
After I left home, I spent the next many decades finding fault with my father. Often, especially when I was with my sister, it bordered on sport. How many problems could we lay at his feet? In how many ways did he fall short as a father? When was he going to change? Didn’t he know how unhappy he made everyone? Looking back on that time, it amazes me that this business-obsessed, nonviolent, gruff guy who read two newspapers every day and a book a week could provide enough material for even one night full of sisterly drunk talk. He was not a sweet, involved, supportive dad. That was his terrible flaw.
So as the story goes, my fault-finding with my father, really both my parents, culminated in a very long estrangement. A ten year estrangement interrupted by a couple of Christmas cards. When I finally saw my father again after all that time, he had magically changed. He was 88. I was 54.
He was very mellow. Non-judgmental. Interested in what I was doing. Kind to my children. He had a sense of humor. He wanted to try new things. He went to Taco Bell. He told me this, how he’d gone to Taco Bell and asked the young man at the counter what he would recommend like he was checking out the wine list at a ritzy restaurant. He and I and two of my kids squeezed into a booth at the Chinese restaurant in his small town and we studied the placemats to find out which ‘Year of’ he was born in. The placemat didn’t go back far enough. He waved it away with a laugh. I can still see his hands rolling up the edge of the placemat, the little finger on his left hand permanently bent by an injury he never told me about. I don’t think I ever asked.
When I visited my father during this time, the time between my mother’s death and his, I wondered why he hadn’t been like this when I was growing up. Easy-going. That was the word. He seemed easy-going. He was easy to talk to. I wanted to talk to him. After years of Aqua Net conversation, I had real conversations with him. About my mother, our growing up, what had made him happy and what he was sorry about. And there were the stories. About making his own skis when he was a kid, playing his horn in dance halls, running the tire department at Sears. Sometimes he’d refer to himself in the third person like he was telling me a story about a different person, someone he used to know.
When my cell phone rang in the car and it was my brother, I knew what he was going to say. While my husband kept driving and my teenage children hushed their constant ribbing in the back seat, my brother told me the news. My father had died in his favorite chair with the TV tuned to a 24-hour news station. When we got home, I went in the shower and cried. For a long time. It was a weird combination of grief and gratitude, of, for once, having done something right, sitting in the Chinese restaurant, listening to his stories, and telling him mine. But knowing that that one time would have to be enough. One time was all there would be.
At my father’s funeral, I read an Edgar Guest poem entitled “The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders.” I read it because we used to listen to Edgar Guest on WJR while we drove to work, when we weren’t talking about how to outfox the competition, and I read it because of this last stanza:
But it’s strange for a lighthouse man like me
after forty years on shore to be.
And I wonder now – will the grass stay green?
Will the brass stay bright and the windows clean?
And will ever that automatic thing
plant marigolds in early Spring?
There isn’t a grand conclusion. There is a small one and it is this. People don’t stay the same their whole lives. My father changed but so did I. I stopped making him the culprit for everything disappointing in my life and he relaxed enough to be a whole person to his daughter.
It was a rare and precious coincidence. A once in a lifetime thing.
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