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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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.