Unfinished Business

For the last several years, the changing colors of the leaves triggers me to ask my four daughters, “When can we get together for Christmas?” Every time I ask that question, no matter how I preface it, how I disguise it, the question becomes a catalyst for a civil war among the daughters. I almost didn’t ask the question this year—it’s been such a godawful year for my husband and me—but duty called. I’d like to report there was a different response this year but I’d be lying. In fact, the ache of disappointment is greater than it has ever been.

Going through this drama each autumn, I’ve come to know that there are a lot of people out there who do not talk to siblings and a few who don’t even talk to their parents. Having spent seventy-five percent (or three quarters, and that’s not an exaggeration) of my life without parents, I would give anything to have my mom and dad back for just one day, or even one hour. I cannot fathom any circumstance that would cause a child to choose not to talk to his or her parents. It is beyond my comprehension even though I know it happens.

Siblings, on the other hand, are different. I am the youngest of eight and there are a couple of my siblings that I do not talk to more than once or twice a year. And when we do talk, the conversation is stilted and awkward. If we were not siblings, there’s not a chance in the world those people would be included in my inner circle of friends.  So as it regards siblings, I have empathy for my four daughters. They did not choose to be related. However, I know without a doubt, if my parents were alive, all of us would be there for Christmas.

In the midst of the civil war that erupted about ten days ago, my daughters Rose and Emily debated the definition of family. Daughter Kate’s husband is allergic to cats and Kate’s house is the only one without a feline. So Kate wants to have Christmas at her house, which happens to be more than two hours away from everyone else. Rose suggested Kate hand out Benadryl and get her family to my house to celebrate the holiday. Emily accused Rose of being insensitive and said “family doesn’t treat family like that.” And so it went.

The thing that is most troubling for me is the fact that all four of my daughters gather at their dad’s house on Christmas Eve and at their grandmother’s house on Christmas Day. “We’ve always done it this way.” So when their dad and I divorced, I compromised and held my Christmas celebration on other days. When really didn’t matter to me. We’ve gathered as early as the first weekend in December and as late as the middle of January. It’s the gathering of my four daughters with me that matters. So why can they gather at other people’s houses but not at mine? Why can they agree to gather as a group with other family but they can’t agree to gather with me? What do I bring or not bring to the equation?

It’s a riddle I’ve been trying to solve for years with no success. The older I get, the greater the disappointment and the deeper the hurt. I have the wisdom of knowing I have fewer years ahead of me than I have behind me. My four daughters can’t comprehend that at their young ages. And since they have yet to lose a parent or a sibling, they have no comprehension of how life turns on a dime, how short our lives actually are.

Oldest daughter Kate is now 32. She’s a mother herself and plenty old enough to understand unconditional love, and yet it’s Kate who is the biggest antagonist. This year she drew a line and will not be celebrating Christmas with me and her sisters, prompting Rose to call her a “self-righteous, self-centered, holier-than-thou bitch.” Like that would help.

Holidays are always so stressful, so filled with emotions. We battle the stress of buying presents, telling ourselves we’ll deal with the overspending in January. We exhaust ourselves by hurrying and scurrying while getting everything ready for the ultimate December 25 deadline. We fight disappointment at not getting something we wanted or frustration and anger when a somewhat inebriated sister-in-law says, “Wow, I didn’t know you were pregnant. When are you due?” With all the noise in the mix, it’s no surprise that we lower priorities with family. Family is loved ones, safe, reliable. If family gets hurt feelings, they’ll still be family a month from now and you can circle back and say, “Hey, sorry about that. I was having a bad day.” But I’m here to tell you that sometimes, you can’t circle back.

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Reading Between the Behaviors

As part of my job, I am required to complete extensive training each year on a variety of topics but usually on the laws and regulations that govern the industry in which I work. This month’s training was on the topic of culture and identity, a slightly different topic from the norm but important nevertheless since my employer takes ethics very seriously and instills a culture of inclusion for all of its employees.

Two questions were asked to begin the training: What identity do you have? How many cultures do you belong to? Simple answers are the first things that come to mind but the real answers are much more complex. For example, in terms of identity I think of myself as a wife, mother, grandmother. Those are my first thoughts. But I also can identify as sister, youngest sibling, aunt, working woman, baby boomer, survivor, writer. Actually, there are many more labels that can be applied depending on the context I find myself in when needing to self-identify.

The culture thing was a little trickier for me. When asked how many cultures I am a part of, I naively answered one. As it turns out, I am a part of several since I am a white, college graduate, middle-aged, employed, married, hearing-impaired, female, American. Each one of those characteristics places me into a unique group. And each one of those groups to which I belong has its own rules and values that drive my behaviors. If a culture values hard work, behaviors will look like focusing on goals, being organized and determined, striving for success. If a culture values family, behaviors will look like respecting elders, honoring parents, offering support and encouragement to siblings.

As “one nation”, the United States is a diverse blend of communities and cultures, all sharing experiences and common influences. Our lives are governed by the same laws, systems, and processes, and yet we behave in ways that we learned from our cultural identities, based on who we identify as and how important certain values are to us.

Think of the community in which you live. How many cultures are reflected in that community? How different are the values and behaviors among all of the cultures that exist? Do you consider your community successful? Do cultures co-exist easily or is there a constant tension?

What happens when a culture is mired in despair and hopelessness, if common values are focused around the mere act to survive? How does a community blend that set of values with the values of its other cultures that don’t have to worry about survival and instead focus on achievements and success? Can members of “successful” cultures even comprehend the lives of those in other cultures just trying to live to see another day?

Cultural differences influence how we are treated simply in how others identify us or in how we self-identify. As a white person I never thought I would be subjected to profiling in America. It never used to matter that I was a woman. I was told I could grow up to be anything I wanted and I taught my daughters the same thing. But things changed during last year’s presidential campaigns and election. The Women’s March and other protests caused some men to start treating me differently, labeling me emotional, hysterical even, simply because I am a female and despite the fact that I didn’t participate in any of those events. As a citizen of the United States, I never thought I would live in a country ruled by a dictator. I still don’t, but the fear is real now when before I couldn’t imagine it. Right before my very eyes I’ve witnessed the man in the office of President of the United States knowingly lie and mislead people, blatantly and strategically breaking ethical and moral bounds if not legal ones. If a culture begins to allow lies and deceits and ambiguity, what rules and values do those behaviors create?

I am embarrassed to admit I am married to someone who defends Trump’s every word. I try to justify it by saying my husband doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand women, he’s from the “old school”. But what do my words and my behavior say to the culture of women to which I belong? When my husband defends Trump by saying it’s within the President’s authority to pardon anyone he wants, what does that say about the values and rules we have in our home?

I am an American. I am a woman. Nothing will change those identities. But I have fear today that I didn’t have a year ago, that I never imagined I would feel, ever. How do I stay a member of my cultural groups when their values and behaviors are changing in catastrophic ways that I disagree with? These sweeping changes carry the potential to destroy the America I love and crack the foundation of my marriage and my home. How does one maneuver through a minefield like the one that has sprouted up around us?

Mind Blows

The hits just kept coming during a span of three weeks last November. First I got word that my oldest sister was being treated for beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. She is twelve years older than me. Then I got a call from my oldest brother, that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He is nine years older than me. Another brother happened to mention in passing that he had recently had a physical and there are some issues with his liver. And another sister, ten years older than me, was diagnosed with early signs of Alzheimer’s. There are eight of us siblings and half were dealt major health blows at nearly the same time. It was just days after our country’s tumultuous presidential election. Right before the onset of the holiday season. Smack dab in the middle of our family’s annual unspoken mourning period, when each of us quietly acknowledges the anniversaries of our parents’ deaths and what would have been their nth birthdays. It was all too much for me.

For years my husband has tried to persuade me that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s run in my father’s bloodline, not my mother’s. And my DNA comes from both of my parents, so I only have a fifty percent chance of getting one of those devastating diagnoses. Try as he did, I never bought into his logic. Thrusting four of my siblings into chaos with their physical health was a cruel reminder of dominant genes. I’m not going to escape the inevitable.

It’s natural to want to pull family close during tough times but when all this stuff went down, I was still reeling from hurt and anger after being slighted by another one of my brothers last August when his son got married and nearly all of my nieces and nephews showed up for the wedding and reception. However, none of my children had been invited. My siblings and their grown children asked where my daughters were. I didn’t lie. “They weren’t invited.” Oh, there had to have been a mistake. I must not have read the invitation correctly. Unfortunately, I had read the invitation exactly as it was addressed and when I had heard many of my nieces and nephews were going to be at the wedding I contacted my brother’s wife. She told me none of my children were invited. There was no slight, no mistake. My children were not invited. How was I supposed to respond to that? My daughters knew all about the wedding, had heard many in the family talking about it, knew there were bridal showers happening. They thought I wasn’t passing on the details. I finally had to tell them, they weren’t invited. Oh. Okay then. Except it wasn’t okay. And once the wedding day arrived and Facebook pages in our extended family lit up with fabulous photos showing all the fun, my daughters were furiously hurt. They had every right to be.

So when news traveled in November about all the different health issues, I tried to put on a good face and thought about gathering with my siblings for our Christmas celebration. Half-heartedly I asked each of my daughters if they were planning to go. Not one. As the day approached, I knew I couldn’t go either. One of my siblings understood why I was hurt. A few tried to tell me it was all a big mistake and I should just let it go. I couldn’t. And by that time I was too far down the rabbit hole, angry and hurt, mourning my parents, mourning the loss of family, of the deep and emotional family bonds that fell apart after my parents had died despite how much effort we had all put toward staying connected physically.

A week after my siblings gathered to celebrate Christmas, my brother (with the liver problems) called me. He and his wife were on the call together and they put down a quilt of guilt, telling me they loved me and I should have been at the family gathering. They couldn’t understand the hurt and anger I felt and they were convinced my children not being invited to the wedding had just been an overblown mistake. They told me I needed to put my feelings aside and be there for the next family get together. Ha! The next family gathering was another wedding, one of my daughters. And she had picked a venue that was limited to only 100 guests. She invited all of my siblings but not one of her cousins. Her mindset was, since she couldn’t invite all of her cousins then she wouldn’t invite any.

My brother and his wife who had intentionally not invited my daughters to their son’s wedding last August have never said a word about what happened even though I know the topic has spent some time on the family grapevine. And when they attended my daughter’s wedding in April, they were very cordial and joking about their daughter’s wedding happening in July, how stressful it is to plan two weddings within a year’s time. I wanted to ask if my daughters would be invited to their daughter’s wedding but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wanted to believe it had been a mistake, that it wasn’t an intentional slight. Surely they wouldn’t do it again.

They did.

Last night my husband and I attended my niece’s wedding. Many of my other nieces and nephews were there. And today, family Facebook pages are filled with fun photos. Again. My husband and I left right after the dinner was done. Not one of my siblings argued with me to try to get me to stay longer. They knew. Aside from an initial “hello” and “congratulations” spoken to my brother, the father of the bride, we had no other exchange of words. Those may have been the last words we’ll say to each other for a very long time.

Hurt and anger in the mind are as devastating as blows to the body. Everything hurts. People say time heals all wounds but the history with this particular brother is long and complicated. He’s logical, cold, calculating. I’m emotional, compassionate, creative. This may have been the final blow.

Standing By My Man

It’s no secret that my husband and I are on opposite sides politically. We met and fell in love before we knew that about each other. Shocking statement, I know. But it wasn’t a problem because we both did a lot of bi-partisan work and we each were well-versed in compromise, finding common ground, and negotiating. Besides, the political divide in our country was just a small one at the time. Our core philosophies were the same—work hard, do the right thing, treat each other as you want to be treated, watch out for the less fortunate, help others whenever you can.

I’m old enough to remember when Monica Lewinsky made the evening news, along with Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and others. I remember the backlash Hilary received for standing by her man. I even joked at the time that it was a good thing they lived in a big house with more than one bedroom because that meant Bill had somewhere to sleep.

When Al and Tipper Gore divorced, I was caught by surprise. And I wondered, how is it they didn’t make it but Bill and Hillary have survived as a couple? Political ambitions trump all else? Or maybe having more than one bedroom really did make a difference?

These last few months have challenged my marriage in ways I never expected. At first, I laughed out loud and teased my husband. “Did you hear the latest?” I would ask with each breaking story about Donald Trump’s behavior or bold lie. My husband usually justified whatever it was by saying Trump was misunderstood or misinterpreted. But then the news media began playing videos. Trump denied mocking a disabled reporter, and the media ran video of him doing just that. Trump said he never opposed the Iraq war, and the media gleefully ran old video of Trump saying he opposed it. Trump claimed no one respected women more than he did. Access Hollywood video proved that a lie.

Over the course of this election, I’ve witnessed a shocking turn of personality in my husband. Ten years ago I married a man who valued women as equals, who supported my desire for a career, who would never consider saying a derogatory or defaming statement about anyone. And now he supports a man who has repeatedly verbally abused, bullied, and sexually assaulted women; a man who has ridiculed POWs; a man who has laughed at the grief of a fallen soldier’s parents.

Funny thing about life. The older you get, the more of life experience you have to draw from and sometimes, not always, you’re wiser as a result. Many years ago I was desperately trying to get my daughters and me safely away from their father. Abuse and violence were a daily occurrence and I just wanted to get us out alive. I swore I would never allow myself or my daughters to find themselves in that situation again. Divorce was welcome relief and it saved our lives.

Fast forward to present day, to the political climate we are in. Events of the summer caused me to no longer talk about the election with my husband. Not because I fear for the safety of my life, but because I fear for the preservation of his soul. He has been brainwashed to the point of believing it is okay to joke about a person’s disability, that locker room banter can include sexual assault language, and that there’s little need for truth. His delusional mind now believes he needs to go buy a gun because civil war is going to break out if Trump loses.

No, I do not fear for my safety in the same way I did in my first marriage. But I am concerned about how I’m going to get my husband to walk away from the ledge of the extreme Right and bring him back closer to center. He is lost and needs help. No other woman would have him now. I am his only hope for a nurse to restore him back to a world of respect and love of country. I’m standing by my man. And if our country is going to have a successful future, I pray other women will do the same with their husbands. Gently, lovingly let’s bring these brainwashed souls back into our hearts. Maybe in the process we can restore civility and lessen the political divide.

This Year’s Christmas Miracle

I’m tired because the phone rang at one o’clock this morning. I was deep in sleep and for a moment had to think about what day it was, what time it was, where I knew my kids were supposed to be. In the dark, I reached for the phone and discovered it was my daughter Emily. When I had gone to bed, Emily had just gotten on a plane for the third leg of a long journey home from Grenada where she is a veterinarian student. She is halfway through her grad school program and today is her twenty-fourth birthday. She was so thrilled and relieved to be coming home. I knew her plane was supposed to land around midnight, so I was concerned when I heard her voice on the phone. She apologized for waking me up, then wanted to let me know she was home safe. She sounded happy, not something I was expecting from someone calling me in the wee hours of the morning. And then she said, “I wanted you to be the first to know.” Her long-time boyfriend had just proposed to her and they are engaged.

“Congratulations! I’m so happy for the two of you!” I said, with sincerity. He is a wonderful young man and I think the two of them will make a good life together. I promised to keep her secret until this afternoon, when she was able to share her news with all of her sisters and her dad when they gathered to celebrate her birthday.

It took me a while to fall back asleep, which is why I’m tired today. But this morning I woke up with the realization that after all the struggles Emily and I have gone through—the months of not talking to each other, the horrible things she said to me all through high school and college, threatening to sue me on more than one occasion—when the moment mattered to her, she wanted her mom to be the first one to know. It brought tears to my eyes.

As a mom, I’ve always tried to do the best job I could with whatever circumstances I was in at the moment. Some days were easy and joyful, other days—and there were many—were fraught with drama and worry. Sometimes I had to make decisions that I knew would not be warmly received by my four daughters. Sometimes I knew that saying the right thing would inevitably cause one of them to say horrible and mean things and shut the door on our relationship. But my guiding light was always how I would feel at the end of my day when I sat down in prayer and held myself accountable for my actions and thoughts. I followed that “spirit” as my “mother guide.” It was the one true thing I could place faith in. Getting Emily’s call last night, knowing she wanted me to be the first to know, was a reward I never imagined I would receive. I’m holding the moment in my heart as this year’s Christmas miracle. It’s a reminder to every parent: no matter the struggle, no matter how long the silence, don’t ever give up hope. If you worked hard and laid a good foundation, your child will return to your life on the other side of adolescence. You must believe. Always.

Transition

When I first started writing this blog I was in the midst of daughter drama (but hey, when haven’t I been in the midst of daughter drama?). It was February 2012 and two of my daughters lived with me and my husband. A third daughter was just a few months from getting married, and my oldest daughter was already married and a mom herself. There was a lot going on with all of them and life was not always a bowl of cherries. I wrote to vent and to try and make sense of so much that seemed idiotic and downright stupid.

Now, just three short years later, my life has changed so much! It doesn’t feel like it’s been only three years; it feels like ten or more. Now, only one daughter remains in my house. And even though she is still here, she is nearly “launched.” Not quite ready to be on her own but very much an independent young woman rarely needing my guidance. Ha! Three years ago I thought this day would never come, or that I’d die before I saw it. Or that she would die as a result of the really bad choices she made every day. Oh, how the journey was treacherous! But I am relieved to know it is behind me (us).

With all of these changes, I’ve been cogitating for weeks (months, really) whether I should abandon this blog and start a new one. My original focus was to make sense of the nonsensical, to write openly about the difficult challenges I was experiencing in trying to shepherd daughters through adolescence and into adulthood in today’s world. After much thought, I’ve decided I’m going to stick with this one a while longer. After all, I created my four daughters and through that experience I am who I am today because of them. I am the product of my four daughters.

So it seems fitting to keep the blog name, and keep writing about my life and interactions with them. For while they are nearly all on their own, I still sometimes struggle with their choices. But mostly, I am struggling with trying to reconcile who I am today with the woman I was before I became a mom. And as I watch my daughters become women and mothers, I see myself thirty years younger in them.

I want to believe that by writing this blog, I’ll be able to process thoughts and ideas until they are fully formed and ready to be spoken and shared with whichever daughter I am interacting with. I am still learning how to be a mom, even after all these years. Funny. On the very first day of my first daughter’s life, my doctor told me I’d be a mom until the day I died. The older I get, the more profound that statement becomes.

Spirit of Christmas, please visit us!

No, this isn’t a plea for presents or treasures or vacations in warm places. Truth be told, I don’t need anything wrapped in shiny paper this Christmas. I am blessed. I have all the material things that I need. And I even have a few extra dollars that I have already donated to charity. I’m healthy, my husband is healthy, our children and grandchildren are healthy. Indeed, that’s a mighty fine Christmas! What more could I possibly ask for?

There’s just one thing. I’m looking for a Christmas miracle that cannot be wrapped in a box with a bow. It can’t be bought in a store or ordered online. I don’t even know if it can be manufactured by humans, although Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and Charles Schultz came very close a couple of times. I remember watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every year when I was a child. We didn’t have DVR or TiVo back then, so we had to make sure we were sitting in front of the TV on the one night the show was on. And because every kid in town watched that show, the next day at school everyone was a little more kind, a little more caring. It was an infusion of the Christmas spirit.

In my lifetime, I have experienced more than once the true spirit of Christmas. And a couple of times, I’ve been fortunate enough (and blessed) to be on the giving side of a Christmas miracle. It’s a wonderful feeling to help someone who wants to believe. I am a believer, which is what makes this year’s Christmas story so dreary.

You see, instead of decorating and cooking and playing festive holiday music, we are battling über drama in our family. It’s drama in the most extreme sense. In fact, I never thought drama could get so ridiculous, so hurtful, so pointless. And it’s all about whether we will gather for Christmas, and where, and when.

As a believer, I cannot fathom even considering not gathering with family at Christmas. So the fact that two of my daughters are refusing to gather just doesn’t compute. In my mind, this all goes back to a still-unexplained meltdown that happened with Kate, my oldest daughter, in August. And now Emily, my daughter with entitlement issues, has formed an alliance with Kate and the two of them are refusing to spend Christmas with me. The other two sisters are just as confused as I am, and they’ve asked Kate and Emily several times to speak up about what this is really about. But Kate and Emily won’t answer. Instead they throw out hurtful and intentionally mean words, calling the others names for trying to defend me, and twist anything any of us say into absolute nonsense.

At first my husband told me to not take it personally, but even he can no longer deny that all this anger and hatred is directed at me personally. Over the last month I’ve tried a hundred ways to negotiate and compromise, even offered to go to them. That threw them off a bit, but they quickly recovered and suddenly were not available on any of the days that they knew I was. At this point I’ve thrown up my arms and said, “Fine! I’ll celebrate Christmas without you!”

And I will. But it won’t be the same. No matter how many people gather in our house for the holidays, there will be gaping holes. So I’m praying for the Spirit of Christmas to have pity on us and spread some magic snowflakes or put up a guiding star so that two lost sheep can find their way back to the flock, where they can be cared for and tended to and loved.