Last week was a reminder that family does not necessarily mean the people you share a bloodline or legal ties with. Family can be created, family can be a choice, and in my case the bonds are far stronger and more powerful than what I shared with my parents or sibling. From my position as the sole survivor of my family of origin – my parents and sibling are gone now – I periodically wish that I had been able to love them more, to forge closer bonds and ties with them. Unfortunately it never happened. My folks did the best they could, and while in my darkest moments I think it was grossly inadequate, mostly I get that they themselves were ill-equipped to be effective parents.
At this point in life, I have to let it go. They did their best, and unfortunately what terrible trauma and abuse I endured was beyond their ability to admit much less process. I am still here, alive and thriving in my own ways. G and C are leading independent lives and still speaking to me voluntarily and routinely so I learned some patenting skills along the way. Things are good in my little world.
On black Friday M and I attended the wedding of the son of my longest tenured freelance client. It was a small event – just immediate family and a couple of close friends – and it was incredibly special to be included with such a small and intimate gathering.
When I met this client 24 years ago, I was employed by his CPA firm. We became friendly and in January it will be 20 years that I have been doing monthly accounting for his business. Through that I got to meet his then wife and family.
My daughter died in 1996, and his son who just married was about 7 at that time. His wife died of cancer in 1997, a very fast track from diagnosis to passing. Sad times. For whatever reason his son became very attached to me, sitting in the office with me playing with his toys or coloring while I did my work at his dad’s office, usually an hour or two once a week.
For the first 5 or 6 months he never said a word to me, just hanging out in the same room. But one day out of the blue he asked me if I was still sad about my daughter’s death. The question caught me completely off-guard and the tears sprang to my eyes before I could compose myself, but I answered him truthfully, that I was still sad and I missed her every single day. He came over and hugged me, patting my back sort of awkwardly in comfort. He was 9 at at that time.
After that, he would talk to me for a few minutes when I came to work on the books. About baseball or soccer or swimming – all sports he participated in. I would tell him about G’s cross country and track and band, C’s softball and dance. After awhile he talked very hesitantly about his mom, things she used to say or used to do. Soon it would be how much he missed her, how sad his father was without her.
For about 6 years we had these little chats once a week. His father never asked me about what we talked about, but I knew he knew that he’d talk to me. The son saw a counselor off and on the first couple of years, and I know it helped enormously. But our quirky little friendship grew through the years, into random email exchanges that continue to this day. His was the first and only bar mitzvah I have ever attended, his high school and college graduations were almost as meaningful to me as that of my own children.
At his college graduation party he told me that I looked so sad for the year after my daughter’s death he knew I would be safe to be around when he felt like crying after his mother’s passing. From my own son processing his sister’s loss, I understood all too well how complicated it is for boys to express their feelings. I was touched by his words then and it makes me tear up just thinking about them now.
So I was surprised to be invited to his tiny wedding, but as his dad reminded me – we’re family. So M and I drove to Tahoe and sat in the small chapel and watched him exchange vows with his new wife. It was a very moving ceremony. Afterwards we had dinner at a casino restaurant with the happy couple and the rest of the family. I did not once feel like an outsider; I felt enveloped in a circle of love.
Last Sunday my best friend from high school emailed that her father had died. We do not keep in touch regularly; life routinely gets in our way. She lives in Germany with her partner, travels extensively each week for her job, and when she does come to the states it is usually to North or South Carolina where the rest of her family is based. Her father lives in our hometown, about 25 miles from where I reside now, in the same house where we used to hang out in high school. He remarried awhile back, and the new wife and BFF were reasonably cordial but not close.
But one email and I’m in “what can I do?” mode. Could I contact her step mother about arrangements and then notify the rest of our local network? Done. Many of us still live in the area, and still others were planning to be around town for the holidays, as their parents and extended families are still here. She and her partner were arriving on Wednesday along with her brothers and sister from their eastern and southern cities.
The funeral was yesterday and was actually quite nice. The eulogy was informal, with family and friends stepping up to say a few words or share a memory. Despite my paralyzing fear of public speaking, I forced myself to stand and deliver. I talked about our high school days, hanging out at my friend’s home because it was right across the street from the school, and how her dad was divorced and dating. Dating! At 15 when we first became such fast friends, it was such an anomaly in my network to have a divorced parent who actually dated. But he was always different and a little eccentric. Never Mr. F like other parents or Bobby, he was just “dad” to all the rest of us. He treated us with the same sort of casual ease he treated his daughter, respecting her autonomy and ability to think and make decisions for herself. During my talk time I related the last time I saw him, probably 12 years ago, when I was now a parent of teenagers myself. When we parted I said “great to see you, dad” and received his big, toothy grin i response. It was only after my son mentioned it to me that I realized what I had said, and his smile was happy that I remembered even so many years had passed.
I can think of a lot of worse ways to be seen off than a gathering of family and old friends getting together and swapping stories.
It was wonderful to see so many old friends. My friend’s niece and his granddaughter was 2 when she came to live with them for several months without her mom. That cute little baby girl left in the care of a gaggle of clueless teenagers after school every day is now a new grandmother herself. The bratty younger brother now manages a large hotel on the east coast. The very matriarchal older sister had a stroke 2 years ago and struggles to make herself understood and gets around with a cane.
As for the rest of us, we’re much older and hopefully wiser. Our lives have taken us in different directions and away from the small core of close friends we once were way back when. It is as it should be, I think, that we grew up and spread our wings and soared in different directions. I see many of them at least once a year, during the holiday season when someone – lately us – hosts a holiday party and we all attend with our families. Yesterday was kind of like a mini high school reunion, only with the people I really love and had a strong desire to see and spend more than a few minutes with. There were some noticeably absent friends – two who died from AIDS or its complications in the late 80s, another killed in an auto accident, still another felled by cancer. Seeing those who remain, even under the sadder circumstances of a funeral, was wonderful.
My mother did not really like most of my friends in high school. I believe she viewed them with suspicion, wondering which of them would be my partner in crime when I eventually hit bottom. The funny thing is I failed to meet her expectations for disappointment in my black sheep role and have forged a pretty good, happy, middle class respectable life. And for the most part, those I was closest to in my youth have done the same or better.
I made good choices in the family I built. I wish I could tell my mom I was sorry for disappointing her, but it would be the one time in my life I lied to her.