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.
People in my life keep leaving. They move far away, they change, they die. They stop answering my calls or harbor a grudge or abruptly, they’re just gone. I don’t know why this keeps taking me by surprise, or why the blow to my heart doesn’t diminish with its recurrence. I’ve been collecting losses and abandonment along my path like souvenirs on a trip. The tragic departure of this precious boy who was not yet 21, came on the heels of other deaths; first my sister’s husband from cancer, and then a close friend of mine and my younger brother by suicide.
People in my life keep leaving. I can’t seem to find the light in this. Pain has set up residence in my chest, weighing heavily on my heart. The last time I saw my nephew he was only eight years old. Maybe it was I who abandoned him.
Everyone is coming home; all the sibs. We’re coming from the east and west coasts; from Hawaii and points in between. With these kinds of geographic divides, rarely do we all gather at the same time, but the need to lay eyes on one another and hold each other in bracing, desperate hugs overcomes all obstacles. It overcomes estrangement, too. Over the years there have been hurt feelings, misunderstandings and rifts, arguments and damaging confrontations, not to mention widely differing opinions on religion, politics and lifestyle.
But none of it matters now. We’re coming to form a net to hold our brother and his wife in their devastation; to stay present with them, to hold space. They’re not alone and we won’t leave them.
The captain’s voice interrupts my reverie with the caution that moderate turbulence is expected. “Please return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt securely. If you are traveling with a child, be sure their seat belt is also securely fastened.” My heart speeds up as I feel an involuntary, but familiar adrenaline spike. Nervous flyer, that’s me. I check in with Haley who is content playing her DS. I wish I could have brought everyone on this trip but for several reasons, it’s just the two of us. Sydney broke my heart when she wheeled out a suitcase she’d packed herself and loaded it into the van. When I reminded her that she was staying home the tears started and as I pulled out of the driveway she turned away, burying her head in Steven’s belly. We had only gone a block when I looked in the rearview mirror and Haley was crying silent tears down her face. “Sydney’s crying is making me cry,” she said.
The empathy of a sibling. I feel it, too, as the ache of my brother’s unspeakable loss fills my heart. I think of what it would feel like to lose my son and I shake my head as the thought overwhelms me. I inhale deeply and lean back in my seat, closing my eyes and escaping into the black expanse of my mind. I miss my family. I find comfort in picturing their faces and imagining their voices. Soon my I’m following a meandering stream of thoughts.
The last time we were together, stacks of photo albums came out. The genetic resemblances were startling; we look like our parents in middle-age and our children look like we did in a much younger incarnation. Our school pictures prompted full-on belly laughs; no one was spared the awkward expression or hairstyle choice or accessory (fanny pack). Stories and inside jokes came rushing back to life as we reminisced about the silly, petty stuff that evaporated into nothing, as well as the big stuff that left marks; vicious fights, times we hurled words—and objects—at one another, intending to hurt. And one wound in particular, injuring an innocent little sister and inflicted by me through thoughtless and cruel words, still needed to be cleared. I held her gaze and begged her forgiveness. She gave it freely, and healing filled the space where pain had been.
We recalled playing as hard as we fought. A mad chase through the house landed someone on their back, arms pinned under another’s knees while various methods of torture were meted out. In the pecking order of age and size, I fell in the middle; victim of some, tormenter of others. But when conspiring against the common enemy of authority, we were truly bold, risking the wrath of the parents for the thrill of being rebellious, like the time we thought it would be fun to avoid bedtime by sneaking out the window and hiding. On the roof.
Sunday dinners, family prayer, vacationing in the mountains, singing, playing games, laughing; the best memories replay in my head. Somewhere Dad has a Christmas we spent sledding in the Wallowa Mountains captured on 8mm film. Down curvy logging roads we came, screaming around the bends and picking up speed on the straight-aways. Two to a wooden flyer, we lay, bulky on our bellies, stacked like little Michelin men in our snow suits, one atop the other. Our legs hung off the back so we bent at the knees and lifted our heavy boots to keep our feet from dragging. The driver on the bottom, clutching the steering bar with fat, gloved hands, held the responsibility of maneuvering the vehicle. The passenger just held on for dear life. It was a race to the bottom but we didn’t always make it down the mountain intact. When I lost control and missed a turn, the momentum rocketed my sister like a slingshot, head first into the snow bank. As I dug her out I heard the smug laughter of the victors as they whizzed by.
The plane suddenly jostles, the drink cart rattling as the flight attendant, thrown off balance, reaches for a handhold. My eyes snap open and I’m brought sharply back to the present. A glance at Haley hunched over her game reassures me she’s not ruffled, but my heart rate has doubled. Although I’ve flown since I was a child, I’m getting more uncomfortable rather than less. It doesn’t seem to help that I tell myself we’re not in danger; the turbulence is simply the plane reacting to air currents, like a boat on a choppy lake or a car on a bumpy road. It’s the fear of what could happen that heightens my anxiety. And that anxiety can escalate quickly to full-blown panic. We hit another jarring patch of turbulence, bouncing several times before dropping unexpectantly. I try to relax; just breathe and let go. My coping mechanism is complete surrender of control. Once I’ve accepted there’s nothing I can do, I begin to trust. Trust the pilot. Trust the plane. Trust the divine.
I inhale deeply, relax all my muscles and give in, allowing my whole body to move with, instead of against, the turbulence. I take myself away by closing my eyes. The motion brings me peace and I’m lulled back to my daydreams and in my mind’s eye, I see the children my brothers and sisters once were in the adults they’ve become. The graying hair, the wrinkles and laugh lines merely record the passage of time, but the essence of their personalities and what each brings remains unchanged. We’re still us, only better.
I fondle the pendant on my necklace—a photo of Sydney and Haley my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas one year. It’s rewarding for me to watch my children, through the rich and varied experiences of a shared childhood, forge these sibling bonds. Their configuration is also distinctive. They all came from me, but the older two had 12 years together first; tumultuous at times as they rode through the storm of divorce side by side, but they were stronger for it, and closer. By the time the younger two came along, the big ones were nearly out of the house. The little girls formed a twosome of their own, and though there’ve been lurches and jolts here and there, smoother skies have graced their voyage.
Collectively, they’re a tight bunch, even with the age gap. But it’s already started; the distance, the leaving. Melissa and Jeremy, adults now, hold stunning promise as their stories unfold, leading them on paths away from us . . . and each other. Sydney and Haley, still intertwined for years to come, will eventually peel off and follow their own dreams. No matter how far or where they venture, I hope they’ll always feel the tug that draws them back home.
A few Christmases ago Jeremy came back from Chile where he’d lived halfway around the world for two years, and Melissa traveled the 800 miles from Austin where she was living. I didn’t know when I’d have them all together again so I went to ridiculous efforts arranging an outdoor photo shoot in the snow and dressing everyone in bright, colorful sweaters, jackets, hats and scarves. “Mom, are you trying to make us look like a Gap commercial?” Jeremy teased.
The photographer got lost trying to find our home. We waited inside, overheating and sweating though outside it was below freezing. My perfectly coordinated ensemble began to unravel. By the time she arrived the girls’ hair was mussed, the big kids were impatient, and I admit, I was a little testy. My husband, instant shifter of moods that he is, saved the day. The kids posed on a pretty bench, wrapped around and holding onto each other in a way that made my heart sing. Behind the oblivious photographer, Steven dove to the ground, his face emerging somewhere between her calves, sporting the silliest of grins. Their spontaneous laughter and the joy of that moment were captured in an unforgettable image I’ll cherish forever.
I know they will, too, just as I know one day they’ll grasp how much their sibs mean to them. They’ll realize that these are the most enduring relationships in their entire lives. These are the best friends they will ever have.
The PA crackles with the announcement that we’ve begun our descent into the Phoenix area. “All electronic devices are to be powered off and seat backs and tray tables returned to their upright and locked positions. We’ll be on the ground shortly.” I feel a surge of relief as I notice the turbulence has lifted and the powerful jet now sails smoothly through the open sky, safely nearing its destination. As the plane noses down gently, I think how the unpredictable and sometimes terrifying flight parallels the adventure of living in a family: Disturbances may arise, even harrowing uncertainty, but we make it through by staying, surrendering. We hold on and ride it out, weathering the storm, knowing we’re not alone; we are holding space for each other.
They’re waiting down there—those people who are stuck with me. I belong to them and they to me. My siblings share my history. They hold my memories. When the wheels kiss the tarmac, the weight of my heart begins to lift and unbounded love rushes in to fill and expand the space. I’m home.