Wednesday, July 26, 2006

My Brother's Chair Through Tears

He was a good man; respected in his profession, loved by his community and his family.

I loved him too.

Over a year ago my mother lost her son. No stranger to grief, her brother died while they were still in high school. She buried her father in the late 1950's and her mother in 1990. Her best friend only last year. This loss, however, held within it, all the losses that came before.

She lost her husband, I lost my father, on a sunny day in November 1968. I remember the day well. My family will tell you I remember everything. Mrs. Salata, my mom's best friend, came to school to pick me up. I was unfazed. She told me my father was ill. This was not unusual. He had been hospitalized not long before for a bout of depression. I expected depression.

That morning I wore blue school uniform with bright orange knee socks, brown saddle shoes and an orange sweater vest. I was excited; I had asked Gary to the Christmas dance. I loved the holidays. It was a time when the dysfunction in the family was barely visible behind the holiday decorations and parties.

Mrs. Salata didn't say much on the way home. When we arrived she let me go in first. I walked in to see my mom, 5 years younger than I am now, sitting at the kitchen table, already dressed in black. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and in that second everything changed. The color of the sky dimmed and the huge quiet that is death's absence sucked the air out the room.

I only had to look at my mom to know that her life, already difficult, had become more so. Her heart break and grief were evident; etched into her face, worn raw, not from tears, but from weariness and disappointment. The burdens that had broken her heart now bent her shoulders. I said "Mommy." She looked up at me as if I were a stranger. All these years later I understand her confusion. She was trying to arrange her life, trying to find the story that would give her the strength to go on.

My oldest brother was at college. He had been gone long enough to miss the depression and hospitalizations that had filled the past 4 or 5 years. His world was opportunity; our world at home was grief, sadness, fear. He came home, but I don't remember his taking the time to talk to me or David.

The funeral was the day after Thanksgiving. My Uncle, who hadn't spoken with my father in years, sobbed in the corner of the church. So much unsaid. There was a disagreement over my father's intervention, which was really not an intervention at all, in my uncle's marital problems. I remember the family reunions that we attended and how my parents stayed back, never spoke to my uncle, although they told us to be polite.

These were critical lessons. The value of silence, of pretending that your family is intact even though no one is talking and you can hear your mother pace the floor while your father cries at night.

After the funeral my mom realized the life insurance policy my father had would pay her almost nothing per month. Her estate lawyer charged her more to handle an estate with nothing in it than I charged clients 30 years later. (And the lawyer was a member of her church - he knew she had nothing - how could he take so much?) So no money, three kids, one in college, two at home and her widowed mother with no family to support her. My dad's brothers were far away; his only sister distant and judgmental.

So as I struggle with family issues I wonder what good was family to my mother? What was family to her after all was said and done? I don't know; I think she was ashamed about the mental illness. His family turned their back on her when he was ill, so ill that the only choice was a state mental hospital, and electroshock with no anesthesia. They blamed her I think. I was a newborn; my brothers 16 months and 6 years old. I imagine that she lost her joy that year. I know she was, and is, to this day apologetic. Apologizing for wanting too much which was, and is, really not much at all.

I know that the patterns my mother and father followed in their married life, lived in silence, my brothers learned by heart. Each one suffered, hid the pain and in sacrificing comfort escaped judgment. This pattern, well worn and heartbreaking, set the family course, then and now. I never learned how to live with the silence. I could never accept that each of us could suffer or fail, and tell mom, but never tell each other. And if we did, it was only to one, or the other, under a vow of silence.

Over the years the silence grew.

Talk was small, limited to weather, work or things. Even talking about children was dangerous. If your children weren't perfect, it was kept quiet. Mom knew, but she wasn't supposed to tell. And if she did, it was prefaced with "Don't tell anyone you know but ..." My brothers collected things; cars, cashmere coats, watches, jewelry and houses. They loved to talk about things.

I collected failed marriages and life experiences designed to be a warning to anyone who didn't listen to their mother. I was the odd one, and if I had a success, it was not mentioned. My failures were legion though, and open to discussion. I liked to talk about life and all its messy experiences. No one wanted to listen.

So I wonder, what good is family? What is family to me? I have a brother, who no longer speaks to me, a niece, who no longer speaks to me and a mother who is complicit in their silence.

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