My parents, my sister, Jacob, Abbie, and I got on a plane in Albuquerque and went to Seattle for Christmas, 1997. We needed to say goodbye to my grandma, my mom’s mom.
The journey there was epic. I’ll have to remember to tell you that story. My family? Not the world’s best travelers.
We got to my grandparents’ huge house and the air there was heavy. With death, yes, but mostly with thousands of unspoken hurts, resentments, and unhealed wounds that had festered and grown rank.
And me? I was so grateful that I was removed from it all, that my little branch of this family, the one that moved away to Albuquerque way back in 1976, had broken the cycle. We were in recovery. We had moved past all that.
We just about broke our own damn arms, patting ourselves on the back.
I come by my self-congratulatory tendencies honestly, at least. Jorene always told me, “The minute you think that you’re humble? You aren’t anymore.”
That’s one thing in my favor: I don’t ever think that I’m humble.
So there we were, in that giant house, the air heavy with festering wounds and my grandpa never turned off Fox News’s coverage of the Clinton impeachment trial.
Most of my mom’s side of the family is conservative to the 10th degree while the rest of us are liberal to the 10th degree. We’re ahead of the times; we were deeply polarized even before W. took office.
Moderation? It’s just not something that any of us do.
See? Something else I come by honestly
My mom has long been the black sheep in her family, cast as the villain in many family stories. We arrived, and in the stark relief that imminent death creates, all of the family’s roles were on display.
Probably the vats of coffee we were all drinking didn’t help. In my family? Coffee is like a religion, or maybe a sickness, and everyone over the age of about 12 drinks it, and lots of it. Strong, black, cup after cup after cup, all day long. In that house, for the week we were there? My grandpa, two aunts, one uncle, both of my parents, my sister, me, and my two eldest cousins were drinking coffee. We kept three coffeemakers going all day, everyday.
My grandma was in her bedroom, dying of colon cancer. When a person who is the central figure in many people’s wounded psyches is dying? There are bound to be some strange and conflicted feelings.
And the whole time, my sister and my parents and I were congratulating ourselves about how great it was that we had all moved on, that our little part of the family would never be fractured like this. That the death watch for my parents would not be this awkward, this strained, with so many unspoken wounds in the air.
Not us. Never us.
The minute I think I’ve done something right, that I am in any way better than, superior to, or above anything or anyone, the universe pounds me into the ground like the insignificant, ordinary nail that I am.
When my family fractured, it was that much more painful because it was a surprise. Not us, we wailed, it can’t happen to us! We’re special! We broke the cycle! We moved past all that!
I found out how it feels to play the role of villain in the family stories.
Do you ever feel like the universe is teaching you the same lessons over and over and over again? And then you think you’ve learned the lesson for good, but oops! here we go again, because you continually act like an ass in all the same ways?
Yeah, me, too. I hate that.
My grandparents did the best they could. In some ways, their best was absolutely shitty. In some other ways, it was awesome. In most ways, it was completely ordinary.
The same goes for my parents.
The same goes for me.
When my grandma hugged me for what we both knew was the last time, she spoke into my ear, “You’ll have a wonderful life. I want you to have a wonderful life and be happy.”
And my only thought was, “Interesting. I had no idea you cared about me at all.”
I would love for my children to come sit at my deathbed unburdened by old wounds, but I know better than to expect that. I work, instead, to make sure that they come to my deathbed knowing that I love them, that I care about them beyond my ability to express that caring.
I am doing the best that I can, and I love them deeply.
And coffee. At my deathbed, there should be lots of coffee.