My daughter started playing flute in grade school music, my son started clarinet in junior high. I was thrilled they were pursuing these activities. Until they started practicing at home. Nails on chalkboards, kids learning/practicing their instrument – I remember it all sounded about the same. I would choose practice times to put on my headphones and listen to a CD during the first couple of months of music education each year.
They got better, though, and as the months and years passed music practice became just that -music. I enjoyed listening in as they progressed on their pieces and such. It became a pleasant soundtrack while cooking dinner. Every now and again I pull out the cassettes they made for honor band tryouts and listen again, just for fun. It connects me to another time and another place in our lives together, one I happily revisit.
What that has to do with tonight’s post? Nothing really, except we have had a family issue crop up with M’s sister. While M’s immediate family all live within 40 miles of us, he/we are estranged from his father and stepmother, see his older sister sparingly, and have not spoken to his younger sister in at least 6 years. Until tonight. The older sister texted and then called to let M know their sister has liver cancer.
I am never sure what to say or do in such situations, and I know from experience it is going to be tricky for all concerned. My own sister broke a 3-year silence/estrangement with my mother and myself to announce the breast cancer she had dealt with in her absence had returned and was now stage 4 metastasized bone cancer throughout the bones in her back. At the time I lamented my confusion to close friends. I mean, what does one say when your sister calls out of the blue to say her health is really bad? And as an afterthought, she forgives you and is over her hurt and anger? If you are me, you bluntly say “I do not need your forgiveness, because I have not done anything wrong.” Which starts a whole new chain reaction of hurt feelings and angry words from her, only she needs something from me and cannot seems to communicate with me unless I can be baited into an argument and then guilted into doing precisely what she wants. That had not worked on me in years and years, but old habits, family patterns do not fade without effort. Just ask, let’s discuss it like adults, not like I am your evil enemy sister who must be manipulated into doing your right thing against my will.
M has similar interactions with his younger sister, only he is even more strident than I was with mine. He pretty much despises her. I cannot blame him or try to cajole him into making peace because I do not care for her much either. She lives in a forest/mountain town where M runs with his friends most weekends in the summer and fall, yet he never calls on her and prays mightily that he does not bump into her at the local grocery store or gas station while he’s there with his running buddies. It is truly that bad. Before the family breakdowns came several years ago, we would see her just about every Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas where everyone gathered. I can find enough common ground to make polite small talk if needed to keep her out of M’s orbit, but as I said, we have not seen or heard from her in years.
Family is family, and for whatever reason it seems especially true when the chips are down and you do not like each other much. M called her tonight to get the cancer diagnosis news first hand, and listening to my very patient husband try to keep his aggravation under control as he paced around the house listening to her was about all I could do. Thankfully the conversation was short, but her requests (demands?) are going to be difficult to fulfill.
She wants M to “bury the hatchet” with his father, and preferably not in his stepmother’s head. Thanksgiving is coming up next month, and since she “may not have that much time left” she wants the whole family to come together for a meal while M’s nephew (her son) and his wife and baby are in town in a few weeks. M did not take this emotional blackmail very well, because his father is a stubborn, hard-headed, my-way-or-the-highway sort of person and has never treated his son with much respect. I am also reluctant to reopen that can of worms, because his father and stepmother were extraordinarily cruel in their dismissal a few years ago. Frankly, it has been a huge relief not to have to listen to the various family dramas and Machiavellian manipulations that my stepmother-in-law implements or tries to implement among the members of her family.
M is thinking about it. This is not my own crazy-making relatives, so I can cope with them for an evening if needed. I could influence him, but I have decided to take no stand on this one way or the other. While I think M’s personal honor code might benefit from seeing his sister again before the cancer gets bad, I believe old sibling injuries that have kept her from our home (and us from hers) for all these years make staying away the more logical choice. Whatever M decides is the right thing for him; if needed I will be supportive and take one for the team by conversing politely with them and demonstrating rapt attention to all the negatives in their lives. After one particularly long and drawn-out Thanksgiving several years ago, I remarked that black holes were modeled on his family holiday dinners. Sadly I still think that.
Family life is definitely complicated. But I have to admit this one is so much easier for me because it’s not MY family this time.