Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sitting Empty

The holidays are a tough time.  They are a time that makes me, at least, think about what family is, what that looks like, and how to wrap love around it.  It isn't easy, particularly in these times.

Growing up, we spent every holiday (the big ones and the minor ones, like birthdays and New Year's and Memorial Day) with my dad's side of the family.  We'd all gather at one house, then hop to another house in the afternoon and cram anywhere from 20-30+ people into as tiny a space as it seemed possible and call it a holiday.  Granted, some of those times were great.  Some were not.  More holidays than I like to admit seemed like exercises in loneliness - being talked over and walked around and generally taken or leaven (I made that word up) as the days unfolded.

But I went.  Because they're family, and family is where you go at the big moments in your life.  It's also where you catch a glimpse of just where you got those little things about yourself that you either love or hate.  That's family.

Twelve years ago, however, my dad died.  Holidays just haven't been the same.

You see, I'm hurt.  That's the majority of the problem.  I'm hurt because my dad was diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer when I was a freshman in high school.  I spent as many evenings as I could at his house - the only one of his kids to do so, the only one of his family to do so - and spent as many nights as he needed me.  Cleaning.  Cooking.  Shopping.  Monitoring his medications.  Making him comfortable.  Whatever I could do.  Again, the only member of his family and friends to do so.  I was there when he lost his sight, when he'd hobble around the driveway with a basketball trying to pretend he could still see.  I was there when he was up in the middle of the night with chemo, puking his guts out.  I was there when all he would eat for nearly three months was vanilla wafers.  I was there when nobody else was.  And we can talk about what all that meant for me, for my heart, for God, for Heaven, for forgiveness, for redemption...or the lack of all of the above, but that's not this story.

Four months before he died, someone got it in their head that he wasn't doing well.  (Terminal cancer.  You think?)  Another relative moved in, and with her, she brought a hospital bed.  She confined him to hospice in his own living room literally one day after he'd still be functioning terminally fine.  She started metering when I could see him - because he was tired, because he needed rest, because the game was on and he didn't want to be disturbed - all moments I had shared with him until that day.  I resented that.

The morning he died, I was actually not at his house.  I'd gone back to my mom's for a night of sleep at dad's insistence, and had planned to spend that Saturday with him.  It didn't happen.  They called to inform me he had passed, and I rushed across town where I was met at the door to the house I had grown up in, the house where my dad lay dead in his living room.  Two different relatives pulled me aside and explained that they understood I thought I had to be there, but they didn't know why and that this was a tough time for everyone and the absolute best thing I could do if I decided to stay was to stay...out of the way.  I was not welcome in the house.  They would not allow me to see him.  

I did the only thing I could: I climbed my favorite tree and watched the day unfold.  Save for the two relatives who told me to leave the grieving family alone, the only person who talked to me all day was the funeral director, who was absolutely misinformed about why I was crying so hard.

Planning the funeral, they bypassed my suggestions of dad's favorite songs and favorite poems and went with something that entirely wasn't him.  They tried to convince me maybe I could play the organ for him, which would put me sitting in the very back of the chapel instead of up in the front with the family.  I declined, hurt again.

The day of the funeral, I was three rows back.  Behind "his family," who took the first two rows of seats.

In the months and years to follow, I tried to do my best by him and by that branch of my family tree.  I went to Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I emailed.  I visited.  I called.  I gave them my phone number and email address multiple times after they kept saying they'd lost it.  They never called.  They only emailed in reply, and then it took 6 weeks or longer for even a short word.  When one of my dad's (and my) dogs died, someone informed me via email 7 months later.  Nobody mentioned when the other one died.

When I became seriously ill, I was still talking to them as best I could, and I informed them of the situation.  They said, "Well, let us know how that turns out" and not another word was spoken.  They never wrote, called, or emailed to check in on me.  They never asked how things were going.  When my first book came out last October, I sent notifications and even dropped by a few houses.  I saw them again last May at my nephew's first birthday, where they barely said two words to me.  I asked if they had read my book, and they said no.  Nobody had given them a copy.

All that to say this: This time of year is hard because the simple thing to do would be to say they aren't interested in my being around and simply not go.  But they do have a place set for me.  They do notice that I'm not there, and when I see the out-of-towners in the stores around these times, they always want to know why I'm not coming.  Or why I didn't come.  My grandmother still sends Christmas money and a stocking to me courtesy of my brother, in the hopes that maybe I'll come back.

They have a place for me, but when I show up, it is so totally awkward.  At least for me.  Don't get me wrong: I don't want to be the center of attention.  I just don't want to feel like I'm intruding, either.

And I love them.  I absolutely love them.  Not with the obligatory love of a family, but with the genuine love of just people.  Individually, especially, some of them are an incredible joy to be around.  I love running into them in public.  I just...don't feel like I fit in the group any where.  I'm not sure I ever did, and with so much pain in my heart still over the way things went around the loss of the man that kind of bonded us together, it's a hard place to make myself go right now.

I always think maybe I'll go and just do my best on loving them.  I've tried that; I just feel like I'm constantly in the way.  So maybe that's not it.

Do I forgive them?  Yes.  Do I love them?  Yes.  Would I like to spend more time with them?  Yes.  But is it worth putting my heart through that awkward air just to spend a holiday surrounded by family and yet feeling alone?  That's the question.

It's not something I decided once upon a time and the decision still holds.  It's a decision I make anew, painfully, every year.  Two years ago, I popped into Thanksgiving for a bit.  This year, I had company at my house and so did not.  Christmas is still up in the air.

That doesn't mean it doesn't suck knowing there's a place set for me that sits empty.  That aches my heart.  But some days, it is a place that I just don't want to squeeze myself into knowing it would be uncomfortable for everyone.

A friend of mine questioned a few days ago on Twitter what the protocol is for a dying relative in a family where bitterness and distance seem to reign.  For what it's worth, my friend, my answer is this: 

You do what your heart tells you, and you act out of your love.  Our hearts are connected to people who have held a place in our lives, whether they currently do or for right now don't, whether painfully or mutually agreed-upon, whether by pain or by virtue or by geography or whatever, and those connections are ones we cannot simply let go.  Like I said - I love my family.  And if one of them passes before I have the chance to reconnect in a meaningful way that I feel honors us, I will still honor them.  Because that is what my love says.  Regardless of what my family may ever say.