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.Suzie Huitt
Flying over New Mexico on my way to Phoenix, I peer through the airplane’s small window, taking in the vastness of the red rocks below. I’m going home to the desert. To the funeral of my brother’s son.
People in my life keep leaving. They move away or change. Or die. Sometimes they stop answering my calls. 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.
I can’t seem to find my way through the loss. Pain, heavy and suffocating, has set up residence in my chest. Not long ago, one sister lost her husband to cancer. Around the same time, a close friend died from suicide. My heart–the organ that pumps my blood and the seat of my emotions–hurts from so much grief. And now, this precious boy, not yet 21, is gone. He was only eight years old the last time I saw my nephew. Maybe it was I who abandoned him.
Going home to the funeral of my brother’s son
“Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Edna Buchanan said, the implication being we wouldn’t pick the relatives we’re stuck with if given the option. On some days, I’d probably choose friends over family, but in the end, I believe I’d take the parents and siblings I’ve got. Among this motley crew, love runs deep, borne of time and forged through hardship. We started small, dividing by divorce then multiplying through remarriage to become a big old Modern Family before it was trendy. Actually, it was more like The Brady Bunch from hell.
Three parents, two brothers, and seven sisters in a constellation of steps, halves and wholes, rounds out my nuclear family, every one unique and truly extraordinary. A complicated blend, the reciprocity is messy and even volatile with no lack of drama in 38 years. But conditions are ripe in the hotbed of familial relationship to learn life lessons that just don’t come any other way. Lessons on love, forgiveness, redemption and transformation.
Love borne of time and forged through hardship
Everyone is coming home, from the east and west coasts, from Hawaii and the Midwest. With these kinds of geographic divides, it’s rare that we gather at the same time, but the need to lay eyes on one another, to hold each other in bracing, desperate hugs overcomes all obstacles. It overcomes estrangement, too. Hurt feelings, misunderstandings, rifts and arguments, not to mention widely differing opinions on religion, politics and lifestyle–none of that matters now. We’re coming home to form a net with which to catch our brother and his wife, to stay present with them in their devastation. To take it on as our own.
The captain’s voice interrupts my reverie with an expectation of moderate turbulence. “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 with an involuntary, 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, but It’s just the two of us this time.
Coming home to hold space
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. As I pulled out of the driveway, she turned away and buried her head in her daddy’s belly. We had only gone a block when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Haley with silent tears running down her face. “Sydney’s crying is making me cry.”
The empathy of a sibling. I feel it, too. The ache of my brother’s unspeakable loss fills my heart. I think of losing my own son and shake my head to rid myself of the stark image. I lean back in my seat to close my eyes and escape into the black expanse of my mind. Soon I’m following a meandering stream of thought, picturing my family’s faces, imagining their voices. I realize just how much I miss them.
My brother’s unspeakable loss
The last time we were together was for my son’s wedding. A happier time, we poured over stacks of photo albums and marveled at genetics, noticing how we’re looking more like our parents and our kids look like we did long ago. School pictures prompted full-on belly laughs at the awkward stages and God-awful hairstyles. We reminisced about the good and the bad, about how we’ve matured, and how even the big stuff, the vicious fights complete with hurled words and objects, have dissolved into nothing over the years.
We played as intensely 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 rebellion. 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–all the best memories replay in my head.
Awkward stages and God-awful hairstyles
Somewhere Dad has footage of a Christmas we spent sledding in the Wallowa Mountains 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 long off the back and we’d bend at the knees and lift our heavy boots to keep our feet from dragging.
The person on the bottom clutched the steering bar with fat, gloved hands, bearing the solemn responsibility of driving. The person on top 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 off the top of me like a slingshot, sending her headfirst into the snow bank. The smug laughter of the victors whizzed by as I tried to dig her out.
All the best memories
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 when I tell myself we’re not in danger, that the turbulence is simply the plane reacting to air currents, like a boat on a choppy lake or a car on a bumpy road.
Surrender to cope
No, it’s the fear of what could happen that heightens my anxiety and can quickly escalate to full-blown panic. We hit another jarring patch of turbulence, bouncing several times before dropping unexpectedly. I try to relax. Just breathe, I tell myself. Let go. My best coping mechanism is a complete surrender of control. Once I’ve accepted there’s nothing I can do, I begin to trust. The pilot, the plane. The divine.
Using my yogic breathing, I inhale deeply and relax all my muscles. I soften, allowing my whole body to move with, instead of against, the turbulence. Again, I take myself away by closing my eyes. Here, the motion brings me peace and I’m lulled back to my daydreams.
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, what each uniquely brings, that remains unchanged. We’re still us, only better.
Us, only better
I fondle the pendant on my necklace—a photo of Sydney and Haley my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas. Watching my children solidify their sibling bonds is rewarding. Their configuration is also distinctive: though they all come from me, the older two had 12 years together before the younger two came along. Tumultuous at times, they rode through the storm of divorce side by side and they are stronger for it, closer. By the time the babies came along, they 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 to be 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, halfway around the world where he’d lived for two years. Melissa traveled the 800 miles home 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, dressing everyone in bright, colorful sweaters, jackets, hats and scarves. Jeremy teased me that I was trying to make a Gap commercial.
The photographer got lost and we waited inside, overheating and sweaty. My perfectly coordinated ensemble began to unravel and by the time she arrived, the girls’ hair was mussed, the big kids were impatient, and I admit, I was a little testy. We shuffled outside in the freezing temps to a chorus of grumbles and complaints. But then the magic happened. I stood back and watched her pose all four kids snuggled in close. A light snow began to fall. My husband, Steven, instant shifter of moods, stood behind the oblivious photographer and, diving to the ground, emerged somewhere between her calves, his face sporting the silliest of grins.
The most enduring relationships of our lives
The spontaneous laughter in that moment was captured in unforgettable images I will cherish forever, snapshots of joy synthesizing their sibling-ness. They will cherish them, too, one day in their middle-age, as they grasp just how much their sibs mean to them. They will realize these are the most enduring relationships in their entire lives. These are the best friends they will ever have.
The PA crackles to announce we’ve begun our descent into the Phoenix area. “All electronic devices are to be powered off. 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 the turbulence dissipates and the powerful jet sails smoothly through the open sky, safely nearing its destination. I think how the unpredictable and sometimes terrifying experience of flying parallels the adventures of living in a family: Disturbances may arise, even harrowing uncertainty, but we make it through by staying and surrendering. We hold on and hold each other, riding it out, weathering the storm, knowing we’re never alone.
The tug that draws us back home
The plane noses down gently, heading toward those people down there waiting for me, the ones who are stuck with me. I belong to them and they to me. My siblings share my history and hold my memories. When the wheels kiss the tarmac, the weight begins to lift off my heart and unbounded love rushes in to fill and expand the space. I’m home.