The last time I saw my family, we were planning a funeral.
My older sister had died. She’d been sick a long time, had little money, used an oxygen tank and could barely walk. When my younger sister found her in bed, looking like she’d just fallen asleep, she had a cookie in one hand, the remote in another, with her cats snuggled around her feet. It wasn’t a terrible way to go.
The funeral made us feel close as a family. Hatchets were buried, love was expressed and vows were made to stay in touch. This would never happen, I knew. Death fosters an illusion of closeness that helps families survive their losses. When this feeling passed, so did our desire to stay connected. It’s not that we didn’t love one another. It’s just that we drive each other crazy.
Even my sweet younger sister sends me over the edge. It’s her smoking that I can’t stand. Though our mother died of lung cancer, my baby sister continues to smoke like a freight train. Upstairs, in the house where I’m headed for the holidays, we nursed our mother till the end. We saw what 50-years of nicotine can do. Yet when I ask my sister if she wants to quit, she answers, inexplicably, “No.” Instead, she puffs from dawn till dusk, just like our mother did, hacking and acting like nothing’s wrong. Hearing her cough gives me PTSD; I want to run, screaming, from her house. And this is just in the first five minutes.
“How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?” asks Stanley Kunitz in a poem. Our family members, whom we love, also inevitably break our hearts. What’s more, we’re stuck with them for a lifetime. I have friends who’ve divorced their families but that’s not something that I want to do. When we ditch our relatives, whose loss is it? I’m not talking about families where abuse has happened — then it might be best to walk away. But dealing with garden-variety family issues and ordinary, obnoxious problems? We’re meant to deal with those challenges, I think. Doing so makes us stronger people; equal to love when the going gets nasty, able to stay when we want to run.
Thomas Merton, the great Benedictine monk, captured this paradox succinctly. “Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and heart has turned to stone,” he wrote. That is the challenge that family offers. Pushed to the breaking point by painful things never change, we who hail from dysfunctional families tend to go home with our hearts in our mouths, praying to ourselves on the way.
Let it be OK this year. Let me not be a pompous a-hole. Let me keep my big mouth shut and remember that if I were in the street, these are the people who’d take me in and never ask a single question. Let me be grateful and easy to be with. Stop me from mentioning e-cigarettes or spending another goddamn penny on Nicorette patches that never get used. Let me surrender to things as they are. Let me begin to learn to forgive.
This should be the forgiving season. That’s what I’m telling myself this year. I’ll kick off this forgiveness with the person in my family toward whom I'm holding the biggest grudge. I intend to begin with a conversation I’m dreading more than Christmas shopping. This conversation will not be ruthlessly honest, as I would like it to be; instead, it will be emphatically loving. I’ll resist the temptation to mention the fracas that caused us not to speak this year. I will take the long view, rather (I love this person after all), blame our fallout on a misunderstanding, and allow bygones to be bygones. Begin again. Start anew. Get over myself and my wounded pride.
That’s what I’ve learned about going home. If you want to see your family without going nuts, stop expecting them to change. Abandon all hope that they will become the family you’d choose if you were in charge and see them, instead, as human beings. Remind yourself that underneath the small talk, the fake bonhomie of mismatched strangers struggling to feel like a family unit, runs a river whose contents are thicker than water. This makes it easier to bite your tongue, overlook and forgive. This is what filial piety means when it comes to holiday time: putting family first such as they are. Recalling that We preceded Me. Moving forward and letting go. Staying together the best we can.
That seems to me like a custom worth keeping.