Families are kind of an enigma really. How we define them, how we connect with them. How they change over time and experience and generation. How our expectations of what family is “supposed” to be and what the reality actually is. How we see families reflected on social media, television, movie screen, and all the other means of immediate visual and small amounts of verbal communication. Is family about blood relation? Is it about levels of care? Is family the nuclear at-home unit, or is it those to whom we choose to offer our most vulnerable selves and receive theirs in return? Is it all that and more; or perhaps a mix of that and less and more depending on life experience? I think all that comes to mind in acute moments of celebration and struggle.
My family has experienced a tragedy in the last two weeks. One of my first cousins died suddenly. She was also a youngest sister, also single, also rather extroverted, also with a doctorate just finished in the last few years. She didn’t have a dog but did have a couple of ornery cats. In her younger years she was an Olympic-caliber competitive swimmer. Her path to becoming, like so many of us, was a bit circuitous, but finally I believe, she was fulfilling her calling as a Midwife and Professor and Clinician. She was 47. An aneurysm caused a brain bleed and she never regained consciousness. I couldn’t be there, but our family ties seemed to strengthen as we all stayed in the loop with my aunt and uncle and her older sister as they walked together into the unthinkable. And now we all walk together toward a service, a ritual of comfort I diligently pray, and then walk into a different world that seems all too surreal.
My parents and aunt and uncle and my cousin were all together in Tucson on Christmas Eve. They went to services and then had a family game night. The Roberts’ tribe have no small amount of volume (no, I’m not the only one *snort*). So she texts me – you know, Christmas Eve is a bit busy on my end of the world – and she asks me what I’m doing and tells me she wishes I was there. And then sends pictures of my dad and her dad and the two spouses, laughing and hooting and hollering and telling stories, and says (I still have the text) “Your folks are so cute and Louis and Melvin (my dad and her dad) are just priceless together.” And she asks me to send a picture of what I’m doing. So I take a selfie right before the 9 p.m. service and tell her that my eyelids are half-closed and I only have two services to go. And she sends me a selfie of her and says that some year maybe we’ll all do Christmas Eve together.
I told my uncle I’m grateful for old Job in the Old Testament, because I know God can handle my anger and my questioning and my refusal to believe that “God needed her more than we do.” Sometimes tragic things happen without purpose or meaning or warning or logic. The challenge is to recognize God walking with us, surrounding us, inviting us into relationship to help one another, and most especially a mom and dad and sister who never expected to deal with this, keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Time passes all too quickly, but many years ago another first cousin, my youngest uncle’s oldest daughter died suddenly in her 20’s. She was making her way through college, smart as a whip, a hard worker who was technology smart before technology was easy enough for people like me to use. Her body produced too much potassium and she was gone. Our family was 23 years less wise, less experienced, and my memory fails me a bit on how we survived, most especially her mom and dad and younger brother and sister. All of them, and maybe us, too young to try and face something so beyond what our understanding of fair and right “should” be. I know I have two first cousins who kept walking somehow, who kept learning and living, and who also said good-bye to their dad and my uncle several years ago as well. Are we most “family” in these moments of transition? Are these the moments that call us back from generations long past to remind us that we are, in fact, all connected in ways both in and beyond our understanding? Are these the great “level-ers” of life reminding us that finally beyond our differences, we love and live and hurt and grieve the same?
So on Father’s Day I called my dad – no, I didn’t get a card sent again this year, but a phone call is better, right? He and mom are at my sister’s for lunch and I talk with him awhile, and then I tell him to give my sister the phone. By the time he gets her his phone, it’s dead. I immediately call my sister’s cell phone while I still have a little courage, it goes directly to voicemail (she evidently was trying to call my phone at the same time, at least that’s her story and she’s sticking to it) so I call her landline. I know, right? An actual landline! She answers and I immediately say, “Look, darn it (perhaps edited for publication), when I’m feeling unusually mushy and vulnerable and awkward, you need to be on the phone immediately, then re-gathering my courage I pause, and then say, “okay, so I love you and I’m glad you’re my sister, now let’s move on.” And do you know what? She said, “I know, I love you too.” Whaaaaat?!!? You mean all this time I’ve made fun of her giving me a melon-baller for Christmas one year, and she’s made fun of me for not having corn starch in my pantry, we’ve had those words in us and just never said them?!!!? Geeez. Okay, enough of that, when does Kent think the wheat will be ready for harvest…
So my cousins get credit for me uttering words that perhaps should be easier to say but when you’re from the farm in western Kansas, those words are more a ‘lifetime of putting food on the table and clothes on your back’ kind of expression than a verbal statement. But now they’ve been uttered and neither my sister nor I have disintegrated, nor do I expect our relationship to suddenly become the vision of perfection. But maybe, just maybe, we’ll become more comfortable with our differences, our similarities, our peculiarities (I’d love to make a smart-aleck little sister remark here, but I’m refraining, see, I am maturing, *snort*), our challenges, our opinions, and our understanding, in some ways different perhaps, but our understanding of family. Hmmm, did it really have to take this level of tragedy to get sort of bravely vulnerable? Maybe so. But maybe it doesn’t have to in every family. And maybe in some families the most loving and healthy decision is remaining distant. And maybe family becomes one of choice for purposes of acceptance and unconditional love. And maybe sometimes you muster up the courage to be vulnerable regardless of the outcome and in the midst of that, accept that it’s enough.
See, families are an enigma. And because we’re human, they’re messy and complex and difficult and imperfect and too often filled with hurt and I pray more often filled with laughter and love and forgiveness and yes, no small amount of grace.
I grieve two first cousins gone too soon. The sorrow that permeates the hearts of parents and siblings is one that is much too indescribable and yet, as I’ve witnessed in them, is bravely survivable, a minute, an hour, and perhaps a day at a time. We are as imperfect as the next group of ragtag folk who happen to share ancestry by biology and/or by choice who call themselves family. And in the brutality and beauty that is life, perhaps we glimpse a vision of the holy, and the raw reality and essence of God’s grace.