I sent a message in our sibling group text. I said something like, “at our dinner Friday evening I hope we can take some sibling group photos.” Of course I thought to myself: I bet mom would love it if we took a picture of all six kids together. I hope we can make this happen.
After years of battling illness, my oldest sister, Brenda’s husband, Ted, passed away. My family was gathering in Minnesota for his funeral. We would all be in Minnesota at the same time for less than twenty-four hours. My oldest brother, Brian’s, plane landed in Minneapolis at 5:30PM on Friday and my flight departed at 5:14PM on Saturday. Friday evening was the time to make our photo op happen.
Getting us all together in the same place has not been easy. The last time the six of us kids were together was at a very carefully orchestrated, boundary-intense family reunion we held in Minnesota eight years ago. At the time we planned pictures for a Saturday morning. I recall one of my sisters was not in the mood for family pictures and asked if we could reschedule. I was grateful when she showed up to the site of our photo shoot: the backyard of our childhood home. During the shoot, we managed some happy jumping photos (my personal favorites). Before our family reunion, it had been fifteen years since we all were in the same space. (I believe it was for Brenda’s and Ted’s wedding.)
We are much older now. I am keenly aware that this may be the very last time all six of us kids will be in the same place, that is to say, alive and together. Maybe that is why my mind drifts to my best friend Marianne, and the picture she recently shared. The image is beautifully heartbreaking. In the photo, Marianne, her twin brother Michael, and oldest brother David, stand around the casket of her youngest brother, Jay. Jay had suffered a tragic accident and after fighting hard for the past two years to survive, succumbed to his injuries. In this photo, Marianne’s brother David looks completely disheveled and grief-stricken. Michael appears earnest, eager and sweet. I may be partial. (I totally am.) Marianne, who stood between her two living brothers, looks as if she is not only holding them up; she looks like she is also holding up the world. Michael is standing next to Jay, (and appearing to act as if Jay were still alive). Instead, Jay lies peacefully in his coffin. I had not seen Jay look this good since before his accident. Then I wondered how long it had been since they had a picture together. Their mom passed away in 2006. Maybe it was then.
I am sure there is a connection and that my plea to take a sibling photo is because in truth, I didn’t want Marianne’s sibling picture to become my own reality.
Life is real. Life is uncomfortable. Life is beautiful. Life is ugly. What my life is not is a carefully crafted photo of six adults standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling, while appearing to exist in perfect harmony.
Here is the deal: My brothers, sisters and I are not a close, connected group. We are a bit broken and bruised. Occasionally one of us goes to therapy and sometimes others of us seem to heal. Other times, we seem excruciatingly awkward and completely weird. Then when things seem to be smoothing out and settling down, someone inevitably does or says something that rips us apart, intentionally or cluelessly. (I believe my family thinks that someone is always me a.k.a., the scapegoat.) Of course, we get triggered. Then we retreat. We lash out. We struggle to forgive. We are determined to hold our boundaries. When boundaries fail, we disconnect, quietly relieved as we return to our own lives. These lines of hurt, regret, and misunderstanding go every direction. So do the lines of love, understanding and forgiveness, at least, that is what I hope and want to believe.
This time we left our lives and came from near and far to be with my sister, Brenda. As I made my way to Minnesota, I pleaded to the heavens and really to anyone who would hear me, “I hope we can set aside our differences for a five minute photo shoot.”
It was me. I wanted to take a picture together. We are all adults. There was no mother, no father or parent insisting we show up, comb our hair, smile and show our teeth. (I had a huge gap in my teeth and never liked to show them.) It was our choice to be there.
Before making my way to Minnesota, I coordinated with my sister Brenda and brother Bill for Friday evening’s family get-together. Brenda made a few suggestions. So did I. Bill is my other brother. He has currently blocked me from seeing his Facebook posts and has actively avoided speaking to me since I flew to Minnesota for his wedding reception three years ago. I do not know why.
I care about him. I worry about him. I love him. Long ago I considered him a best friend. This same brother suggested a lovely, local park near his house. We agreed on the park. As we texted back and forth, I took deep, careful breaths, hoping I would not text something that would set him off. I did not want to blow it, and I also realize that writing my reality here may also blow it. I knew what a big deal it was that he was exchanging texts with Brenda and me. Nevertheless, for me, my sanity is about truth. So, I tried to be true to myself.
The Friday-evening-family-event-text-planning continued. After making various food suggestions, we decided on pizza. I offered to order it and then naively realized that offering to order the pizza meant I needed to pay for the pizza. I was frustrated (with myself). I struggled with the assumption that I would pay for the pizza. Consequently, I believe my unresolved baggage allowed me to believe that somehow my family was taking advantage of me. As a result, I fumbled for words and fumbled on my actions. I made a suggestion that everyone pitch in and then made a joke about ordering Dominos instead of the more expensive Punch pizza.
I am sure I annoyed someone. Bill stopped responding. Soon my mom was texting me privately to ask, “who is paying for the pizza?” I also privately shared with her my gaffe. As I was responding to her in a private text, she responded in the group text that she would pay for the pizza. I know she does not have the money to pay for a pizza party. I felt selfish, ashamed and incapable. Quickly, I texted everyone regarding how sweet mom is and said, “Of course, I will pay for the pizza.” Of course mom followed with, “I will pitch in.” And finally, I took time to process all those deep and buried feelings. After downloading to Dave what we now affectionately call, “Pizza-gate,” I realized I would be ok. I took a cleansing breath and Friday night I ordered six Punch pizzas. We ate three.
I think it was Thursday when Bill shared that my step father would be at the pizza picnic. My step dad and my mom have been divorced for thirty years.
Friday night arrived. My step dad and a woman who is apparently his much younger girlfriend arrived with him. She was wearing a black t-shirt with an American flag and the word, “freedom” printed across her chest. She spoke confidently in a thick New York accent. She openly vaped her way through the evening. I brought Marianne, who also lives in Minnesota. Marianne wore a blue sundress. I was nervous and tried to talk about anything other than uncomfortable family issues, politics or religion. Naturally (not naturally) I talked about board games. Trying a little self-deprecating humor, I said and I quote, “The only area I am competitive in is board games.” My mom quickly piped in, “That is not true. You are a very competitive person.” I cringed and tried to defend myself. Then I tried to change the subject. I felt stupid for trying to defend myself. I stopped talking. I think it was Brian who interrupted and said, “Beth, what is your favorite board game?” I appreciated the redirect.
Bill was a no show. Sure, I wondered if it was because my stepdad was there. I did not want to infer. Instead, I asked why. I asked where he was. I asked if he would be at the funeral the next day. I asked if he was ok. I hope he is ok. I also made light of him not being there. Then I asked about taking a group picture. Brian assured me, “Beth, I will make sure he is in the sibling photo.”
*By the way this might be a good time (or not) to mention that Brian and I have had an incredibly rocky relationship which includes years of false accusations and actively disparaging me to his children and my own family of origin.
All this to say that before traveling to Minnesota and also at our dinner family Friday night, I mentioned to Brenda, who does know most of the story, that Brian and I would be ok. “Watch us talk to each other. We both know this moment is about you, not us. We will put aside our stuff and be kind. Watch.” And true to my words, Brian and I were kind. (In fairness, we have had practice.) He maintains that he has no issue with me, or no real memory of his decades of cruel scapegoating. I definitely still have issues with him. He was emphatic, so I decided to trust him when he insisted that he would talk to Bill and that Bill would pose for a sibling photo at the funeral the next day.
The funeral was beautiful. I sat to the right side of Brenda. I did not hold her hand. I touched her shoulder and kept telling her (during pauses in the services) what a lovely funeral this was. It was. Ted’s brother Kim and his niece Erica spoke. I teared up when I spoke to Erica and her sister, Melissa. I felt seen when Kim’s step-daughters talked to me about religion and race. (Thank you ladies.) My cousins on my mom’s side also came. Brian pointed out that they were not speaking to each other. One of them quickly left after the other arrived. “Kind of like our family,” I thought.
Bill, his new wife, and one of Bill’s sons arrived right before the funeral began. I tried to speak to him. It was awkward. He did not respond. I don’t know. Maybe he did not hear me? In the family prayer, which is held right before the service, I handed him a little paper bag filled with postcards. On several occasions a few years back, Bill asked me to buy him postcards. I travel a lot and thought, “Happy to.” At the time he said, “I collect them.” As a result, I spent many trips searching for the right postcard and then searching for a post office so I could send them to Bill. Bill rarely, if ever, told me he received them. Dave often asked, “Does Bill like your postcards? You really worry and spend a lot of time trying to get this whole postcard thing right.” “I don’t know.” I said. “He doesn’t say anything unless I ask and then I feel weird asking.” One day after spending hours trying to find just the right postcard, Dave proclaimed, “Beth, enough! You don’t even know if he wants you sending him these postcards. I wish Bill would say something. I wish he would let you know. Please stop.” So I stopped — until last spring. I wanted to offer an olive branch so-to -speak. I wanted Bill to know I care.
Consequently, on a recent trip, I searched for postcards that I thought would make him smile. I brought those postcards to the funeral and handed them to Bill. I said, “Here are some postcards I picked out especially for you. I hope you like them.” He stared at me for a second and looked away. Maybe he said something. I am not sure. Maybe he nodded. It felt cold. Then I took a deep breath. My guess is that even if I did upset Bill that ultimately whatever is going on is not about me. It’s about what Bill is dealing with and working through.
After the funeral, Bill, his son and his new wife stood in the gymnasium, where Brenda’s local church congregation was holding a luncheon. My mom and Brian went to talk with them. I wanted to talk with them too. I tried to speak to them twice and was feeling super self conscious and defeated. I looked away. I looked back and saw them walking out. Brian and my mom followed them out of the building. To answer your question: No. We did not get our six-siblings-together picture. Today I am certain we never will. (*Maybe my feelings will change.) Seconds later, one of my sisters turned toward me, hugged me and cried, “You aren’t going to leave without saying goodbye, are you?” I assured her that is why I was standing there and hugging her now. “I came to say goodbye. I love you.” I said. Then I left.
Now thousands of miles away on a trip with Dave and Kyle, I think I have been able to process. What seems clear is that my family was upended by layers of grief. Nevertheless, they seemed to feel more pain as a result of Bill’s confusing behavior rather than the loss of Brenda’s husband, (or maybe I just felt more pain as a result of Bill’s confusing rejection). It makes sense. Brenda’s husband, Ted, was terminally ill and in so much discomfort. His death, as hard as it is and probably will be, for my sister, came as a tender mercy. My brother is still alive and we seem irrevocably broken.
At the end of this day and after reconnecting with my family, I recognize that perspectives’ and vantage points of every individual vary and will probably vary now. I hope for compassion and forgiveness. I always will. I also own and realize I could have gathered the other five of us siblings and taken a picture together. I really wish I had.