Family relationships pertain to a plane where the ordinary rules of judgment and conduct do not apply. They are a labyrinth of tensions, quarrels and reconciliations, whose logic is self-contradictory, whose ethics stem from a cozy jungle and whose values and criteria are distorted like the curved space of a self-contained universe. It is a universe saturated with memories — but memories from which no lessons are drawn; saturated with a past which provides no guidance to the future. For in this universe, after each crisis and reconciliation, time always starts afresh and history is always in the year zero. Arthur Koestler
My father was a quote keeper, and this quote by Arthur Koestler was one of his favorites. Dad came from a stormy family, full of tensions and quarrels and reconciliations … or sometimes not. Family gatherings were often fraught with underlying tensions and perceived insults, both real and imaginary.
My mother’s family had pockets of tension as well, although she had more areas of calm. Her father was a kind, dear, quiet man who adored his wife and children and died too soon. Mom also had aunts and uncles that were loving and gentle, attentive to her and to me, too.
On both sides of my family, people had conversations in closets and around corners, whispering about other family members’ behavior, bad luck and poor decisions. Those in the know treated the information they had like currency, believing it gave them power. Those on the outside wanted inside the closet and resented it when they weren’t allowed in.
What this led to oftentimes was a deadly combination of judgment and assumption. My parents did their best to create an island in the midst of all this but being human, they, too, could be judgmental and make assumptions about others.
Not surprisingly, I acquired these patterns of behavior as well. But in that way that life and small children have of upending the way you see the world, I’ve been smacked on the head more than once for making the wrong assumption or judging someone else without having all the facts. It certainly didn’t cure me of this behavior (just ask my children or my husband ..), but it did open my eyes.
The real lessons came after Jimmy was diagnosed. I confess that until that happened, I thought that our “shiny life”, as Kate Bowler calls it, was a result of hard work, good decisions and living well. Dan and I spent time with our kids, watched over them carefully (sometimes too carefully, I can hear Molly say ..) and kept them safe. Even after Jimmy’s vomiting and ever worsening headaches turned out to be the results of a brain tumor, I remained convinced that with top notch doctors, research and just the right supplements, Jimmy could beat it and go on to live a long, full life.
When the cancer recurred, and we had to return to the hospital for treatment, I remember walking those familiar hallways feeling ashamed, as though I should have been able to do something the doctors couldn’t and cure Jimmy. I am sometimes a slow learner so it took me a long time to realize that it was okay to stop judging myself for this and instead accept that I had done everything I could for my sweet son.
It wasn’t until after Jimmy died that my heart broke completely open. In my pain, I sought out others who had suffered a significant loss, looking for acceptance, understanding and reassurance that I wasn’t alone. To find that comfort I had to listen, really listen, to other peoples’ stories — the circumstances of the loss, the choices they’d made, the chances they’d taken. What I realized over and over and over again is the role luck, whether good or bad, plays in our lives and how a single, seemingly innocuous decision can forever and irrevocably alter our path. More than anything, what came shining through was what my parents and Anne Lamott have taught me — there are so many moving parts to our lives, and all we can do is our best.