Sister, I hear you laugh
my heart fills full up
Keep me please
Sister, when you cry
I feel your tears running down my face
Sister, Sister will you keep me?
— Dave Matthews
A daughter was born to my parents nearly 54 years ago; twenty-one months later a brother was born to her: so close in age yet distant — an expanse that only swells as the years race by.
I recently asked my uncle if he had any recollections of my mother, deceased now eleven years, from their youth. Alas, he is five years her junior and recalled little. Yet in adulthood they were very close. My father was not a handy man around the house, and so whatever the need — putting a new roof on the house, hanging wallpaper, laying down tile in the kitchen — my mother had but to call and her brother was there. I recall my uncle as a presence in my youth: at age four or five, sitting between his legs at the front of a toboggan as it raced down a snowy slope in Hines Park; also that he entrusted me with his new Chevrolet Impala to drive my prom date to the event located in the New Center area in Detroit. Knowing my parents, I’m certain they fretted more over my returning his car without a scratch or dent than he did. I must make a point of sharing these two memories with my uncle, even if I can’t today recall my date’s name (only the name of the girl who was my first choice, who accepted only to bail out) or the name of the hotel at which we danced and dined. His trust in me made me feel a man.
Neither my sister nor I have children, and so no niece or nephew will ask of us stories from our youth, which is perhaps fitting. I recall so very little of our childhood: no protective older sister, no rainy day playmate. Different as night and day: she a night owl, me up with the sun. I recall eleven years ago, our first Mother’s Day without Mom, my sister and I took Dad to Sunday brunch. I wore for the first time a summer suit and tie; she wore for the last time a winter outfit. Perhaps she wished to lay to rest that Mom was gone whereas I wished to celebrate her life. I grieved her loss in my own way, but I was looking forward, pleased that her suffering was at an end and that surely she was in a much better, happier place.
In childhood we had our differences, as surely all siblings do. Just as surely that all children at times disappoint their parents — does that mean the parents like the child any less? Perhaps it was our different temperaments that kept us from getting close.
At any rate I married at twenty-three and we drifted further apart. I was divorced before I turned thirty but never reconnected with my sister. I’m ashamed to admit that, at that age, it seemed unimportant. Perhaps it did to her, too.
The years continued to pass and shortly before my mother’s death in 1997 she wept openly that my sister and I were but strangers. My mother told me my sister had once told her she had no brother (from my perspective the obverse was certainly true), and that she didn’t like how I treated women, and I marveled over how alike our perceptions of one another were since I, too, hadn’t approved of her treatment of the young men she dated when we were in our teens.
No one gets out of this life without breaking a heart or two or without having their own dashed (along with some of our dreams) — it’s the stuff of which novels are written and seems to be the legacy the Baby Boomers left behind (and upon which future generations will certainly embellish), which makes it no more right but somehow acceptable. I have my share of regrets (my father told me shortly before he died that no one gets out of life without a few of those, too), and I’m not pleased or proud of some of the things I’ve done, some of the choices I’ve made. I’ve lived my life mostly by default, avoiding risks associated with career even as I’ve risked greatly in other areas.
It’s funny how we so often stumble when it comes to walking the talk where the biblical lessons of judging and forgiveness are concerned. If God can forgive us our transgressions, why can’t we?
I was too young to recall the rift between my dad and his oldest brother, my uncle Ed, who I never met until my father lay in hospice awaiting cancer’s claim. A few weeks after my dad passed away, my Uncle Ed took me to dinner. Apparently in January of that year (1998), just a few weeks before Dad checked into hospice, he’d taken my dad and sister to dinner to celebrate the holidays; for some reason for which he forgave my father, I was not included. But that night after dinner at one his favorite sports bars, during which we talked baseball (a love we shared) and of all the history he’d lived through in his eight-four years, as he drove me back to my car he explained to me the reason why he hadn’t been a part of my life. The reason seemed important to him; certainly it seemed important to him that I understood. But it wasn’t important to me. The reason for those missing years seemed, to me, ancient history. What mattered to me were the missing 42 years. That we all had allowed the empty years to stretch on seemed the greater tragedy. I learned a couple years later from his daughter (who taught at my high school) that she’d brought her dad to see me in a high school play in which I had a bit part. Sadly, I don’t recall that she introduced us.
As my mother lay in hospice dying, her heart weighted with a lifetime of unhappiness, it was for my sister and I that she wept most: that as a mother she’d failed because my sister and I were so distant. I promised her I would change that. Yet just as surely as love cannot conquer all — not if only one party is committed to the cause — my efforts fell short. An invitation to take her and her husband to dinner to celebrate her birthday was met with excuses and no offer to take a rain check. At a cousin’s sixtieth birthday celebration she not only avoided me, acknowledging my presence from a distance with a nod, but avoided any room in which I might mingle with other celebrants, finally leaving early. She invited me to her wedding but looked decidedly disappointed that I’d attended. My phone calls are answered by her machine and returned during the day to my own machine, when she is most certain I am at work. I receive annual Christmas cards from her that wish me well but speak nothing of her life or of any interest in mine. I stopped reciprocating, not out of anger but because of the Potemkin village hers seem to portend — a façade behind which she continues to hold onto her anger or indifference, or whatever it is she holds onto.
I hear from her only when necessity prompts her to pass along the news of a death in the family: my father’s second oldest brother, Alphonse, a few years ago, and most recently when my youngest cousin, Tom, died of a heart attack at age forty-four. I arrived at the funeral home on a Tuesday evening after work to offer condolences to my aunt and uncle and their other two sons, the cousins I hadn’t seen in close to thirty years. Not surprisingly, I missed my sister by a few minutes.
It was good seeing my cousins and their families, catching up on their lives and they on mine, trading memories of our youth. With sincerity they expressed that they’d thought of me often over the years and that they were pleased to see me. I’ve since spoken with my uncle twice, and after I suggested we not wait for another similar occasion to meet, he proposed dinner in the near future. I intend to hold him to that.
It is with heavy heart that I write these words because it’s true, the concept of paying it forward, just as it’s true that, sadly, we continue the mistakes of our parents.
— JCG/August 2008