She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies . . .
Lord Byron (George Gordon)
When I was 13 I sketched my mother’s profile in church. Regal, she sat with her chin tilted upward, receiving enlightenment from the pulpit, her features arranged serenely. Thick, auburn hair hung past her shoulders. The long feathered bangs of 1976 framed her face. To me she was breathtaking. She was the sum of her parts and more; soft hands that soothed, full lips that pressed to a fevered forehead, arms that embraced, a gentle voice that lulled away hurt.
Today the pencil drawing, its edges burnt and the pulp decoupaged onto wood, hangs in her apartment, my adoration for her captured; a living thing. From floor to ceiling, photographs of her children line the walls. She wraps us around her like armor to do battle with her longtime companion, multiple sclerosis. From 2,000 miles away I resonate her pain. I mourn her loss, little by little. Attacking itself, her body betrays; her mind, too, keeping its secrets and misplacing her memories.
Brother and sister, together as friends,
Ready to face whatever life sends.
Joy and laughter or tears and strife,
Holding hands tightly
As we dance through life.
‘Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.’ Edna Buchanan said that. I can only assume the implication is that the relatives we’re stuck with wouldn’t be the ones we’d pick if given the option. On some days, I could see myself choosing friends over family, but in the end, I believe I’d take the parents and siblings I’ve got. Among this motley crew, the love is hard-earned and runs deep. We started small then divided by divorce and multiplied through remarriage, becoming a Modern Family before it was trendy. Actually, it was more like The Brady Bunch. From hell. Three parents, two brothers and seven sisters, consisting of steps, halves and wholes, round out my nuclear family; every one unique and each one, extraordinary. A complicated blend, the reciprocity is messy and even volatile—there’s been no lack of drama in 38 years. But in the hotbed of familial relationship, conditions are ripe to learn life lessons that just don’t come any other way. Lessons on love, forgiveness, redemption and transformation.
Flying over New Mexico on my way to Phoenix, I peer through the airplane’s small window and take in the vastness of the red rocks below. I’m going home, to the funeral of my oldest brother’s son.