Road trip: the family


It’s weird even writing the word.  Family.  For the last half of my life, I would tell people I didn’t have a family, despite having an estranged brother. It’s never been concept I’ve really related to.  In fact, not having family ties has become a big part of my identity.  I don’t need no stinkin’ family.  I am independent, self-sustaining, free from the ties of DNA or surname. 

Yet, now after this weekend, I kinda, sorta think I am part (albeit distantly) of a f-f-f-f-family.  And it’s screwin’ with my head, man.

It has been a decade since I have seen my brother and his wife and kids.  My personal mythology says he rejected me because of my chosen faith of Buddhism.  It’s a good story that allows me to be the innocent victim of my big, bad conservative Christian brother’s narrow-mindedness.   And it allowed me to maintain the independence that is the cornerstone of my identity.  Besides, other than DNA and our shared fucked-up childhood, what did we have in common?  It was better to let that sleeping dog lie.  Yet, I wanted to have a relationship with his kids – to be their crazy Auntie Mary who lived up north who had all the critters.  Not being able to have that made me sad. Still every year I  sent them presents at Christmas time in hopes that maybe one day they might wake up from the spell my brother cast and realize that Auntie Mary isn’t evil or uncaring, but actually kind of nice and fun. 

Every few years I would consider being the bigger person and try to break the ice that had formed around my brother’s and I’s relationship.  It’s hard when that much time has passed.  What do you say?  Pride, fear, anger and any number of conflicting emotions left me without words, so the silence won out.

With the news of my brother’s cancer, I figured it was time to stop all the nonsense.  At least we would have something to talk about.  So, before I gave myself a chance to talk myself out of it, I made the long journey south to visit my brother in the hospital.  I was nervous, to be sure.  I barely got any sleep the night before.  I attribute that to my friend’s overly soft mattress, but I’m sure a lot of it was nerves.  But, I knew I was doing the right thing.  That I never questioned.

The reunion felt a bit awkward.  The first comment out of his mouth was “so, it takes cancer to finally get you down here to see us.”  I opened my mouth to toss back an accusation at him, but I could see his kids watching me intently, trying to figure out who or what I was to my brother, to them.  But, I just smiled and told him it was good to see him.  I ended up hanging out in the room with his wife, kids and sundry colleagues and friends for about an hour or so.  Then I went out to lunch with his wife and kids . .  uh, I mean, my sister-in-law and nieces and nephew.

They’re nice kids.  They told me all about their school, their sailing and what they want to be when they grow up.  My brother and sister-in-law have done a nice job with those kids.  I look forward to getting to know them better now that is an option.

After lunch my sister-in-law dropped me back at the hospital so I could visit my brother alone.  Gulp.   He was asleep when I got there, and the urge was great just to leave a note and tippy toe out of the room.  But, then a nurse burst in with no compunction about waking him up.  For someone who had recently had a few feet of guts and other organs removed three days ago, he was doing really well.  Alert.  Good color.  They had even started him on soft foods.  He definitely didn’t look like he had been issued a death sentence.   Yet, there was still that tumor that they couldn’t remove, and that probably wouldn’t respond to chemo or radiation.  A slow growing tumor, but a malignant tumor nonetheless.

We chatted awkwardly for a while.  Then the oddest thing happened, something I totally did not expect, a miracle of sorts: he apologized for being a jerk these last few years.   So, we spoke briefly about our rift, but there was no need to belabor it.  I could tell he was uncomfortable talking about it, so I just accepted his apology and we moved on.  We left on good terms, with promises of future visits and more contact.

I’m desperately trying to come up with a way of closing this post.  Am I hopeful? Yes.  Sad?  Yes.  Confused?  Hell yes.   Yeah . . .


16 responses »

  1. Lilli – Thank you. 🙂

    CB – Being the crazy Aunt, for me, is definitely a step up from being the non-existent Aunt, or the evil communist Aunt (yes, seriously, my brother equated my liberalism with communism). As long as I am known as the nice crazy Aunt, I’m happy.

  2. HI Lazy Buddhist. Again, it’s just ridiculous how similar your life and mine are. My brother and I were so estranged that one day he sold his house and moved without telling me. We lived in the same city but for about 4 years but I didn’t know where he was actually living. One day, we bumped into each other at a BBQ and have managed some level of nominal contact ever since. My father’s death brought us a little closer together. I’m glad you’re managing a reunion of sorts too. I wish you all the best.


  3. I’m happy to hear about reunion. Tax forms are usually easier to navigate than family relationships, and have less penalties.

    I hope you and your brother can build something new and fresh.

  4. Bless you for what you’ve been through, are going through, and with what grace. You give me hope for my own sibling-frost. Thank you.

  5. Hi Ron – the similarities never seem to end, do they? My bro did the same thing with the moving and giving no notice (as did my dad). I can’t remember how I caught up with them, but I did.

    Stevo – yeah, I think the ease of not having to deal with any family stuff was part of my incentive on letting this feud brew for a decade. Moving forward, I don’t think we’re going to be the best of friends b/c we’re so different. But, as long as we steer clear of religion and politics I think we should be able to have a civil relationship.

    Shu – No, no. Thank *you*. 🙂

  6. I have tried and tried to comment here and can’t come up with anything that doesn’t sound like a Halmark card. So I guess I’ll just say I’m sorry for the reason you were reunited with your family. At the same time I’m happy for you because you are reunited with your family, which I think could only be a good thing.

  7. Cool that you held your tongue when he wisecracked about it taking cancer to get you there. As a guy who wisecracks, too, I can see why he said it, but cracking back is a fine line.

    Your post almost surreally parallels the story of my old friend J who just visited (you commented on my post). His brother, now a rigid fundamentalist, whose wife’s function is making babies (they are on their 10th) and all the girls have no ambition beyond babies, giving Biblical reasons. So J is the wacky liberal uncle.

    Very cool you are in their life again, wacky aunt Mary. I hope we get updates, and your lazy faith gets much subtle exercise and opportunity to happily express itself.
    * big wink *

  8. You’re right. It is a miracle of sorts that he was able to take the second step, apologize. And I think you did the right thing. You let things go. Some things aren’t important. Some are.

    I hope you will now be able to get on with the business of getting to know your nieces and nephew and making the most of what time you have with your brother.

  9. Adam – It’s OK. Everyone appreciates a Hallmark card every now and again. And frankly, the whole visit was a bit Hallmark-esque.

    Ron – Hmmmm, perchance we were twins in a previous life. 😉

    OmsbudBen – I think part of the problem with my bro and I is that we take each other way too seriously, so we tend to take offense when none was meant. Like you, I tend to be a wise cracker (that is, one who cracks wise, not a white person full of wisdom), but something always tends to get lost in the translation when it tries to cross that cultural divide of Northern California liberal Buddhist and Southern California conservative Christian. I’m glad your friend gets to be the wacky liberal uncle. We all need one of those. Who else is going to take those little repressed nieces or nephew out to get their first tattoo?

    Iver – 🙂 right back atcha

    Corina – I totally was not expecting the apology, but I think the fact that I came with my heart open, allowed him to open his too. Plus, the two by four to the head of having cancer. Everything gets thrown into perspective right quick.

  10. What a wonderful thing to have happen. Desires can define outcomes, this I believe, though it isn’t simple or direct in any case, I think intention counts. And I’m so glad your good intentions bore good fruit.

  11. Amurin – I completely agree. In the weeks before this visit, I was using my brother and his family as my object for Tonglen meditation. With Tonglen, you empathize strongly with your objects (in this case my bro and his family), imagining their suffering. Then with a heart of compassion, you willing take on their suffering, and in return you give them peace and happiness. It’s a really beautiful practice, which I have probably completely botched in the explanation. However, I do believe that focusing on them in this way helped open up my heart which gave my brother room to open up his.

    Robin – Thank you. 🙂

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