Category Archives: Family

It’s Personal, With Love

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This is not a Father’s Day post.

On the other hand, it is. I just found out this morning that my dad had another child. Were he still alive, he would have found out this morning, too – and I would have been the person telling him. Life is a series of kicks in the face.

All my life, I’ve resisted the revisionist tendencies of much of my family. I revolted against the idea of secrecy and shame. Each of us makes our own decisions and is responsible for the consequences. People misbehave and make terrible decisions.

For the first time, this morning, I wrote, “every person in my immediate family has struggled with the demons of alcohol, drugs, or violence.” Some of their stories weren’t mine to tell, even as the consequences boiled over and tainted my ability to live a good life. Over the last year, I learned that my brother, despite his stunning intelligence, has been a victim for much of his adult life. On the Terry side of my family, every person in my immediate family has led a double life. Many have died prematurely as a result. Just writing this paragraph might have earned a beating in the not-so-distant past. The revelation that some of us lead secret lives (or smaller lives) controlled by our lesser natures is one that seldom gets a warm embrace. We prefer to hide our shadows away from questioning eyes.

None of this is a secret. Everyone close to those family members knew, of course. That’s part of the corrosiveness of alcohol or addiction. Part of my adult fight was trying to reconcile the fact that so many people stood by on the sidelines and angrily pushed me away as I tried to be open and honest about my parents and their brutal hidden lives. It’s my story to tell because I have an equal right to share my steps.

Since I was little, I’ve joked that I must have brothers and sisters out in the world. My dad was unfaithful in every sense of the word. He had notorious affairs with several people. I knew that one day I would be able to say with certainty, “I told you so,” even as a couple of my aunts and uncles angrily told me to shut up. “You ought not to talk about that!” Equally true is the fact that my father ought not to have behaved that way. People close to me have heard me say that my genetics are an infection. I don’t say it with disrespect toward my brother and sister; it’s a fact that is sustained by the carnage of our lives.

Years ago, I started genealogy. I didn’t think it would be interesting to me, even though I love to research. It opened a world to me. I helped many people find lost loved ones, discover their birth certificates, and unlock countless mysteries. Many of those mysteries were buried – or so those involved foolishly thought. I participated in the DNA system early and with optimism. DNA is the blueprint of truth that people can’t control. It is the genie which relentlessly tells us the truth, despite what those who preceded us might have written as history. Alongside DNA, I began to discover the historical record that buttressed my claims about my past. Much of the record contained people’s accounts of crime, abuse, violence and sometimes proud moments. Several of my aunts and uncles died before I compiled a record that would make them wince.

History devours all of us incrementally.

As the unofficial family historian, I’ve never shied from directly admitting what happened behind closed doors. It’s caused some discomfort and anger.

And so…

After years of relentless diligence, it finally happened: through DNA, I discovered that I have a half-sister out in the world. This discovery just happened. It’s raw and fresh in my mind. I can’t imagine what my half-sister is experiencing. I have a million questions, of course. Luckily for her, she can use my ancestry treasures and written accounts to jump right into the lives that she wasn’t able to experience. I warned her that demons possessed my father. I’m not one to gloss over the terrain that makes people uncomfortable. I’ve given my dad a long eulogy, one punctuated by bitter truth.

Her mom was very young when she was with my dad. The liaison happened in the early 70s after my dad was in prison and had returned to Monroe County, Arkansas. He’d barely survived a DWI accident that killed my cousin. I know nothing about my new half-sister’s mother or other family. It’s probably best at this point as she comes to terms with unintentionally finding an entire family in the world.

I don’t have all the details. Part of the uncertainty is that the woman in question didn’t expect to ‘find’ relatives, much less someone like me with a full arsenal of DNA results and extensive family history for her. I don’t even know her name yet.

Ironically, I found confirmation on Father’s Day, a holiday that was no more real than a unicorn in my family. My dad died over 25 years ago. He would laugh. Whether that makes him human or a monster I’m not sure.

I am both confused and happy. Most of my glee is for my half-sister who found the road she was seeking. What she does with it is entirely her choice. That’s entirely the point of DNA and family history. None of us had a choice regarding who brought us to this world, and many of us would desperately love to be able to change those choices. It’s not our fault. Whether our parents were doctors or assassins, we are guiltless in our existence.

I wish I could grant amnesty to all those children who grow up feeling responsible for the people behind them.

For those of you who have good families, it probably seems a bit exotic to think about these situations. Many of us flee in self-protection from our family. All of us would prefer the warm embrace of people who value and love us. Unfortunately, much of the world operates on a stranger wavelength.

It’s no insult to say that my original sister and I are incompatible. I’m not one for anger, drama, and instability. It might make her angry to see this truth written out – but it is true in a way that no one can deny. As for my brother, he wisely moved away when he was younger. Over the years, our connection lessened. A few years ago, we went through an intense and disruptive episode that broke something in me. I didn’t know at the time how much he was suffering from addiction. I knew but didn’t ‘know,’ much in the way that each of us later wonders how all of us avoided connecting the painful dots.

Now that the day has come that I might have a connection to another sister, it is news that I can’t share meaningfully. Mom and dad are both dead. My sister is in exile for my sanity, and my brother is struggling merely to live another year.

You might say, “None of that is your place to say, X.” You’re wrong, though. I have earned the right.

I don’t know what, if anything, will come of my discovery of a new half-sister. I wish my brother Mike were in his right mind, though. We share a deep and incisive bond of dark humor and irony. Since he’s been at the brink of death, he has passed a lot of time with me recounting the old stories. Shared history acquires a more profound meaning when you realize that your time in it is diminishing rapidly. In the last few months, Mike has read all my family lore and stories and relished them. He knows how strongly the gravity of what we came from has affected us.

I hope that my new half-sister waits a long time to meet my original sister. While I am by no means able to claim normalcy, I’m foolishly confident that I am the best ambassador to the family.

To anyone reading this, I hope each resists the urge to ‘find’ my new half-sister. She gets the right to decide when or if she opens the door. I wish her peace regardless of her timeline.

To the new half-sister I don’t even know by name, I wish that Father’s Day were one of joy for you. I wish that life had been different for us all and that all of us could sit at a table and wonder about what might have been. Each paid the price of our common ancestor. We never stop paying.

We also never stop hoping, though, either, not if we share a common humanity.

There Are No Small Deaths

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This post is in defense of those who have connections with other people we don’t understand. As I hope we’ve all experienced, it’s possible to meet a person and ‘get’ them, as if we are estranged best friends. Some of these bonds are stronger than those of family. It’s possible to feel closer to one’s fourth cousin than one’s grandmother. Bit players in our lives often morph into the main actors. By living in reverse, we don’t see their importance until they’ve stepped out and away from our lives.

Only the person experiencing the feelings of loss at a person’s passing knows to what depth those feelings reach. Tendrils of connection are often invisible, incomprehensible, and unknowable. It’s important that we abandon the false expectation that we understand the loss someone else is processing.

There are no small deaths.

Even with my best arsenal of words and passion, I sometimes struggle to describe the nuances of another person and their importance accurately. That’s the best-case scenario even when I’m communicating with someone who shares a great deal of humanity. It’s a fool’s errand with those who lack a common understanding.

When a person commits suicide, it’s human to question all your choices, as well as your attention to the person who has left us. Even without the shadow of self-harm, we tend to experience a depth of introspection when we lose someone.

Whether it’s fair or not, suicide strikes us an accusation. We have to give space to those who need more time to find first gear again. Implying that the loss isn’t a reason to grieve is an unacceptable reaction.

Because of the invisibility of many of these connections, one of the most traitorous acts you can do is to doubt or question whether the relationship was real when another person is suffering from the unexpected rupture and loss. “Did you know him or her very well?” or “Were you ‘friend’ friends?” both serve to undermine and accentuate the pain of the other human being you’re inadvertently demeaning.

“Only the spoon knows what is stirring in the pot” is one of my favorite clich├ęs precisely because it reminds me that I’m not privy to all the information contained in a situation or between people. I’ve committed the error of assuming I know. Worse, I’ve judged people based on what I perceive as only imagined depth. Because I’m human and stupid at times, I fear that I’ll do it again.

A typical example of callousness is when someone says, “It was only a dog” in reaction to someone’s disabling sorrow at losing a pet. Such shallow and meaningless comments only serve to highlight the accuser’s fractured self. We should feel compassion for them, as they’ve been deprived of a pleasure in life that they’ll never understand. It was indeed ‘only’ a dog. The greater truth is that a human being had a deep love for that dog. You’re not demeaning the dog; instead, you’re demeaning another human being’s choices and authentic feelings. From the right perspective, such an attitude is monstrous.

Likewise, when people are involved, the callous person can’t know the person they doubt shared a bond with you. The connection isn’t measurable. We can’t see the swell of your heart or the yearning you wish upon the Earth to have this person inhabit your space again. Grief makes even the best of people uncomfortable. As you learn with age, it also unhinges people who have no foundation to come to terms with the helpless sorrow they see from other people.

Perhaps the person who passed once took a moment and literally reached out to let you know that you were seen, measured, and appreciated. Whether you were indeed at your rock bottom, their outstretched hand and openness pulled you out of the abyss. These moments create a bond that’s difficult to inventory – and treasured forever. Because these moments are often private and held close, those left behind are often the only witness to their measure.

As people die, it’s important to remember that grief is terrible, personal, and unknowable. Each time we’re the one experiencing the loss, if we are lucky, we suddenly remember the lesson of connection.

Time, with its caress and embrace, imperceptibly diminishes our pain, even as it prepares us for the next dark surprise.
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*…written for someone struggling with friends who don’t understand the loss…
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The Poppaty Prerogative

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Pictures of people, please and thank you.

“We are who, remembering when.”

Another person recently discovered the agony of finding out that the opportunity to take pictures with their departed friend has expired forever. He has only a few photos of his times with his friend. Because he’s not proud of his appearance, his ability to drop his guard and allow spontaneous capture of his image dwindled to insignificance. Even on the last trip they shared, no pictures document their overlapping joy. His memory still thrives, to be sure, but just as the recollection of a song cannot accurately measure the depth of beauty of hearing the melody, a memory pales alongside the vivid undeniability of a picture to amplify it. It explains why we can so spontaneously burst into tears or feel the literal swell of our heart when we see the presence of people who have mattered to us.

In the specific and linear moments of our lives, we easily overlook the magic and sublime nature of being alive. As time propels us, we look back and can’t help but to focus our eyes on the apparent wonder of what we didn’t appreciate when it was another backdrop in our present moment. It’s our curse. We find it impossible to perceive the zen essence of an otherwise dull moment.

As Andy from “The Office” said, “…I wish there was a way to know you’re in ‘the good old days’ before you’ve actually left them. Someone should write a song about that…”

The moments which tend to echo and call our name tend to be ordinary while we’re living them.

As people begin the ritual of finding new places to experience their lives, so many choose to photograph the static locales and places in their paths. In our data-filled lives, we have so many sources to find beautiful pictures of every single place on the globe. We can virtually drive down the streets of our favorite places without leaving the computer. We can take in the detail of any painting as it hangs on the gallery wall, no matter where that wall might be. There is both truth and beauty in such pictures. To those who say, “Aha! But those aren’t real,” I would point out that memories are only real to those who lived them. Pictures remain a testament for everyone.

We are, however, a world of people. We’ll remember places more for the moods they evoke. People grant us our identity, while places serve as our stage.

We are who, remembering when, imperfectly.

A Saturday of Fracas

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Since the cake option wasn’t on the table, Dawn listened to me and opted to get Julia multiple culinary items of interest. I wanted to choose 15 distinct items but Dawn insisted that diabetes was an impediment to my whimsy. I almost forgot to mention we surprised Julia with a nice Chromebook laptop that I stole from Best Buy last Saturday at 12:35 p.m. I’m just kidding; I wrote that last part to determine with what attention you’re reading my post. Chromebooks are awesome devices. If Julia hates it, Darla’s cat Apollo will continue on its quest to tear it to pieces. It’s a win-win for our consumer economy. No sooner than I had started showing Julia how to use the new laptop than the cat somersaulted on top of the pristine keyboard in Julia’s lap.

Note: it is VERY important that no one notices that Julia joined us upstairs at Darla’s in her duster-gown. At any rate, you have to give her the benefit of the doubt. Anyone who can listen to me explain technology without falling into a deep, trance-like sleep is a saint.

 

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After we departed the in-law’s house, Ty decided that we should eat at Pieology, otherwise known as “The Subway of pizza.” Usually, it falls to us to bemusedly stare at Ty and his antics. As this photo clearly proves, Ty is giving his mom Dawn the ‘wtf’ face. (As Phil Dunphy says, “What the fracas.”) I’m not sure what exactly Dawn was saying at this point, as I had just reached that decision point of whether to shove the entire slice of pizza in my cavernous mouth as if it were accidental. Since I’m a multitasker, it was at that moment that I continued to snap a couple of dozen pictures in the hopes that at least one would earn me a Pulitzer prize. I had to choose between wastefulness and gluttony.

 

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I also pranked my stepson when I went to pick up his to-go box. Carrying around a permanent marker and note cards at all times has its advantages when inspiration strikes. I blurred it out because no one needs to see proof that my sense of humor is tasteless. (Observation: your imagination is probably leading you to worse conclusions than what I actually wrote).

Afterward, with horror on my face, I realized that I had inadvertently described the picture of my stepson Ty as “cute.” I’m not sure if he’s getting funnier or those repeated blows I took to the head as a youngster are finally catching up to me.

Because we enjoyed ourselves during the day, Dawn informed me that my penance was to accompany her to a Walmart market for groceries. I wisely chose to drive through MLK and the traffic snarls resulting from the behemoth graduation ceremonies nearby.

Walmart market was the perfect blow to the nether regions after a great day. Balance was restored.
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