9: A Family Reunion

9: A Family Reunion

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

A Family Reunion

To know when to go away and when to come closer is the key to any lasting relationship.

~Doménico Cieri Estrada

My daughter and I unpack our luggage in our Florida motel room and slip into more comfortable clothing — cotton shorts, T-shirts and sandals. We have flown down from New York to visit my eighty-eight-year-old mother who recently broke her hip. My older brother, David, who has been undergoing dialysis three days a week for over ten years, has moved in with her.

“It’s a family reunion,” I tell my daughter, Zoe.

But, truthfully, it isn’t much of a reunion because there was never much of a union to begin with. That’s because there wasn’t much of a family to begin with. When I was six and my brother was eleven, our parents divorced and my mother married a man who was saddled with four needy kids of his own. My mother later admitted, “After six months of marriage, I knew it was a big mistake.” But she compounded her error by staying married for twenty miserable years. That was our family.

My sixteen-year-old daughter and I park our rental car in my mother’s concrete driveway and step out into the Florida heat. My mother’s pink-stucco, two-bedroom home nestles within a modest community built around a small golf course and features a plush green lawn, well-manicured shrubs, and tastefully arranged palm trees.

As I open my mother’s front door, my daughter sees an invalid sitting in a hydraulic-lift chair. This woman is watching television and the remote control is resting on her lap. Her hair, normally dyed and coiffured, is gray and hangs loosely down.

This invalid is my mother. But my perspective is different from my daughter’s. I see a young, beautiful fashion model, a successful New York City clothes designer who still is able to move around with the help of her walker.

“Hi, Mom,” I say. I pretend to hope for nothing more than some pleasant conversation and a hug or two. More importantly, I hope my daughter might finally get to know her remarkable grandmother. Maybe she’ll even get to know her mysterious uncle David.

“Hi, honey!” beams my mother, reaching out. “And look at you, Zoe! You’ve grown so tall!”

I bend down and kiss the top of my mother’s head.

Sitting on the couch beside her is my brother. I know very little about David. Perhaps that’s because he has always wanted it that way. By the age of fourteen, he discovered a coping mechanism to deal with our mother’s toxic second marriage: heroin. My heroin was boxing. Instead of sedating my sadness and anger, I punched it out. But all of that belongs in the past. David has moved on, and so have I. He is sixty-five years old and has graduated from Columbia University with a degree in social work. Me? I’m sixty and teach high school English.

“Good to see you, brother,” David says, embracing me. We’ve never been close, but I feel his warm hug and I notice the serenity in his face. It feels good.

“Good to see you, too,” I say. Our relationship has never grown much beyond “Good to see you, brother.” Our brotherly bond has always been fragile and, as the younger brother, I never was able to develop a sense of trust around him. Consequently, we keep our topics easy and non-threatening. Today, we speak about his recent retirement and the inept Florida Marlins.

While talking, I sense we both are attempting to establish a semblance of brotherly affection. But I am certain he wouldn’t want me to dig too deep and start asking delicate questions about his health or his personal relationships. So I remain silent.

Superficial and comfortable is best. We offer only the outlines of our lives, at least the version that we like best.

We are both smart enough to have left our guns at the door. It won’t be necessary for us to wear our protective armor this afternoon. All of our arguments, yelling and putdowns are in the past.

After an hour of easy conversation I feel more relaxed and trusting. Perhaps, at this late date, it’s best we aim for comfortable friendship rather than stressful brotherhood.

“You know what I like to do?” he says, looking out the window at the back yard. His voice is soft, tender and humble, and that surprises me. “Every week, I drive to the grocery store, buy a big bag of peanuts and bring it home. Then I scatter the nuts on the grass under the tree in the back yard. Every day I just sit here and look out the window and watch the squirrels, birds and the cat enjoying the nuts.” David’s voice, I notice, exudes a new sense of calm and equanimity, something I’ve never heard before.

My mother smiles with undisguised love and pride at David’s emotional tranquility and his recognition, and appreciation, of small pleasures.

My initial expectation for this family reunion had been small because our individual histories have been vast, bewildering and convoluted. My mother’s fashion career offered her a luxurious and expansive lifestyle, touring the world in grandeur. By comparison, David’s life anchored him to the streets of New York, where he cared for the city’s downtrodden. Me? As an English teacher, I have explored the world, and people’s minds, from the safety of my classroom and the printed page.

I look at David’s worn face and I feel the bite of mortality. My mother, brother and I are growing older and I fear that in profound ways we still don’t know each other very well. We have made ourselves unknowable behind our blind teenage rage, our middle-aged selfishness and now, perhaps, with our mature etiquette and polite superficiality.

There is no hint of anger or revenge. Complaints and accusations are nonexistent. Disagreements are left unsaid and past hurts are submerged, like icebergs, and will remain submerged. Maybe this is as good as it gets.

“Let’s watch Judge Judy,” smiles my mother, as she points the remote control at the television.

Throughout the day, I’ve noticed Zoe sneak quick glances from her iPhone at me, my brother, and my mother. Does she understand what has happened today? Does she understand that we were once enemies locked in combat? Is she aware that she is witnessing her family members finally at peace with each other?

Does she realize that her grandmother, her uncle and her father have emerged from our various personal journeys scarred, wiser and triumphant?

“Will we see you for breakfast tomorrow?” asks my mother.

“Bright and early,” I say, kissing the top of her head.

I look down at my mother sitting comfortably in her hydraulic-lift chair and realize her once expansive life will now become more and more limited. But that is life. “Mom, you’re still the prettiest woman in the room,” I say.

She laughs and her bright eyes twinkle. Her long, gray, uncoiffured hair and wrinkles don’t make her look old, they make her look eternal.

I look over at my beautiful daughter as we walk out to our car. I am so proud of her. At sixteen, she has already distinguished herself. She has maintained a high-honor roll status and has been selected captain of her tennis team. She makes friends easily and seems to be confident and have a healthy self-esteem.

“Zoe, I want the dysfunction to end with me.” I don’t actually say this to her, but it is exactly what I am thinking as we slowly drive home.

~Peter W. Wood

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