One of my favorite things to do at the end of an exhaustive day is curl up on the sofa with a glass of wine and watch one of my recorded TV shows. The wine relaxes my body (too much sometimes—I’m often asleep before the hour ends) and the show takes my mind away from all of the pressures of the day. Take note; I said the words ‘end’ and ‘exhaustive.’ It it were any other kind of day, I would prefer a book and a cup of tea. 🙂
I rarely have time to sit down to the television—generally an hour daily— with working, watching grandkids and writing; that is why I record them. I have a few I regularly follow each season. Right now, I am thoroughly enjoying a new show called ‘Bull.’ Have any of you seen it? The main character is Michael Weatherly, previously Tony from NCIS, now Dr. Jason Bull. He’s such a cutie, I just had to give his new show a shot.
This week’s plot (which I watched last night—not really sure when it is on TV), was even more interesting than usual. It began with a small explosion in a room filled with people. When Dr. Bull asked the group of people how many explosions there were, the distraught group had various answers. There was only one explosion. His point; we all remember things differently, especially under duress. Nobody is consciously changing the facts.
For some reason, that statement resonated with me last night. I’ve continued to struggle with some emotional baggage from my abbreviated trip to Arizona with my sister and niece. In a previous blog, I promised to address it later; I think perhaps now is later.
As I try to make sense of the terrible hurt I endured, I remind myself repeatedly that every person involved in the chaos I will think of as ‘terrible Saturday’ for the rest of my life, tries to live their life as a decent human. We are all three Christian women who love their families fiercely and try to do good in the world. We were all (basically) raised by my mom (my niece’s mom, my oldest sister, was often ill and so my niece spent much of her early years living with us), who was the most kind and loving woman to have ever lived. So, we really have no excuse for what happened, other than differences in memory tainted by grief.
Because I love these women, and because I honestly want and try to be fair in all things, I have attempted to see this situation from each of their perspectives…and I can to some degree. It helps me to understand that while their combined animosity seemed to be aimed at me, it may really just be their way of dealing with the extreme sadness that was the death of our sister/aunt (Pen).
You see, our Pen died a few years ago. She was not the first of our siblings to die (we had lost four between us before her), but she suffered the most. This particular sister and I were not close growing up. As a matter of fact, we fought often. I thought she was too bossy (“you’re not my mom”) and she thought I was too headstrong (“get in there and clean that bathtub better you little brat”). The reality is that we were both strong willed and the age difference of 11 years didn’t help either.
I did enjoy good times with her on occasion. If I helped her sew an outfit for a parade, she would allow me to ride her horse. I loved those times…just me, Pen, and Blitz. Then, Blitz got hurt and she got Hank. I loved Hank even more, and once, when Hank stepped on her toe and broke it, I got to ride him for a whole month while she recovered. So, although we were not super close, we had a ‘working’ relationship…more than a lot of siblings.
Pen was quite motherly toward my younger sister and niece. Since they were 4 and 9 years younger than me (15 and 20 to Pen), they happily did her bidding. After she married and moved to New York, they each visited her frequently on Long Island. By that time, I lived in California so I did not visit her. The distance between us grew and years would go by with the only communication being the cards we exchanged on birthdays and at Christmas. I’m not proud of that fact. I would be so sad if that happened between any of my children, but stuff like that happens in families with 10 kids—the kids move out and move on.
When Pen got sick, it really hit me how little time I had spent with her in my life. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt it so acutely if I hadn’t lost my mother, two of my brothers, and my oldest sister right before her illness. I contacted her in deep apology for being one of ‘those people’….the ones who come crawling in shame when they know someone is dying. But perhaps we see things differently when we know our time on this earth is about to end, because she welcomed me with no recrimination for the past.
I flew to Nevada several times over the last 1 1/2 years of her life. I always made certain I visited with someone else in attendance, as I knew that I was physically not capable of lifting or assisting her the way she needed to be helped [I have advanced psoriatic arthritis in my lower back, neck and ankles] and that emotionally, it was awkward trying to bridge a lifetime with few memories. I never really knew what to say to her, and that made me feel terrible. I tried to buy things that made her comfortable: super warm and fuzzy Clarks slippers, soft chenille robes, and extra plush lap throws with inspirational quotes on them. A few times, I read some of my novel to her and it made her giggle in parts. A couple of times, I met my brother there and we enjoyed the visit together; the two of them were very close growing up being only two years apart in age. A couple more times I went with my husband and then the last couple of times, I met up with my niece and sister.
Pen and I tried…I give us both credit for that. Mostly, I was trying to be there for her because she was so horribly ill and she was trying to make me comfortable for making the effort to be there. She commented several times how deeply she appreciated my time because she knew I had such a big family to take care of. On the flip side of that, my niece and sister enjoyed her company immensely and vice versa. I could see that her absence would leave a great hole in their lives and I tried to lay low as much as possible when I visited with them, only speaking up or helping in a support role for the most part.
What I didn’t know during those two visits was that my niece and sister misconstrued my actions as ‘selfish’ and ‘neglectful.’ I have scoured my mind for any incidents that would give them that impression, but mostly I just see a difference of opinions. I remember one night we were going to dinner at Sweet Tomatoes and Pen desperately wanted to walk (with her walker) instead of using the wheelchair. I eagerly encouraged her to walk with it, knowing it may be her last time (it was) and my husband helped her maneuver the walker into the restaurant. She was so pleased. She would get a mischievous little smile on her face when she was pleased with something. I remember that moment–that smile–so fondly.
The next morning, my niece and sister were up bright and early icing Pen’s ankles which had ballooned as a result of my allowing her to walk. They were quite angry with me for being so ‘selfish.’ Although her ankles were terribly swelled, Pen assured me they did not hurt; they just looked bad. In my mind, I knew I would want someone to do that for me in her situation. I mean, if you are going to die anyhow, shouldn’t you do any little thing you can while you are still alive? Apparently, the other two did not share my feelings. nor did they feel I was entitled to make a decision such as that.
And then later that same day, after my husband had caught a flight home to work, the two of them said they needed to go to the grocery. Knowing I couldn’t lift and assist Pen in her many needs [hence the always making sure I visited with someone else], I said simply, “you can’t leave me here alone with her. I can’t help her by myself.” They argued that I could if I wanted to and I was being really mean. When I again said “please don’t leave me alone to care for her,” they basically told me to stop being so selfish and walked out the door. The entire time they were gone, I was feeling pretty panicked thinking about dropping her and adding a broken hip to her already fragile body.
My recollection of the incident is that I was stating my physical limitations and asking one of them to stay home to help me…after all, does it really take two people to pick up a few groceries? From their combined (still angry after several years) perspectives, I was refusing to care for her because I am a selfish person who can’t handle anything difficult and I made Pen feel horrible about being sick, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…I must admit, I was truly shocked when they said that. Pen understood fully the pain and limitations associated with arthritis, being a fellow sufferer. She didn’t feel bad about my request. In my mind, she felt bad that they were so insistent upon getting out together, as if they absolutely had to have a break from her. But again, that is the difference in the way people remember things…especially when under duress.
I felt as though Pen and I came to an understanding in my last visit. We had given all we had to give to one another and I felt comfortable telling my niece and sister that I wouldn’t be coming back until the end. I felt nothing good could come of it; they were clearly unhappy with my methods and their relationship with her was far more important than mine. I knew their anger and petulance was grief based and that the grief was only going to get worse.
My poor niece bore the brunt of the care for the last couple of months after that since she lived nearby in California. Pen’s husband and daughter were rendered helpless by the impending loss. It was a very hard time for her (my niece) trying to juggle her family and continue to drive to Pen’s. I think when we experience hard times, it is human nature to look for something (or someone) to blame. So when the hospice person told her there were mere days left to Pen’s life, she called my sister and together they made the decision not to call me. They decided that I would be no help and ‘couldn’t handle it’. They called after she died, and although I was devastated to have not been there, have said nothing out of respect to them.
But, that fateful Saturday in Arizona a couple of weeks ago…the story changed even more. They said Pen kept asking for me and didn’t understand why I wasn’t there. Of course, I have no way of knowing which version of this story is the accurate one as I have now heard it recanted over and over during the years that have passed. I usually listen quietly while they reminisce and speak of the hard work and heartbreak they endured during that time, hoping that speaking of it will ease their grief. But with the new twist in the story, I couldn’t help but ask why; why on earth they didn’t call me after my dying sister asked for me repeatedly?
Well, let me just say that they both went at me like I had just murdered their firstborn child. I honestly didn’t mean to nullify any of their dedication and devotion to Pen…I just wanted to understand why they still didn’t call me when she asked for me. I say I wanted to understand, but in looking back, maybe I really wanted them to say they were sorry for ostracizing me, judging me and excluding me when my sister was in her last days.
I ended up leaving the conversation and crying by myself in my room all day. I know, not my finest moment…it’s amazing how family can make us act like children again. But when I got up the next morning to find that my sister had locked me completely out of the villa, I was utterly shocked. And after I texted them and my sister unlocked the door only to attack me about how ‘selfish’ I was to wake them up at 5 am after they had just gone to bed at 3 am, just because I was hungry…I was incredulous. From my perspective, why on earth would you lock me out when I am on a trip with you? Let’s answer that question first!
I know that death and grief bring out the very worst in people. I remember when my mom died and the way my siblings tore at each other. Perhaps we do this to family because we trust them to accept our anger and accusations and still love us enough to be there after it subsides. Perhaps we think the aggression feels better than grief. But there has to be a limit to that anger and those accusations. Nobody, no matter what your specific recollection is, deserves to be a lifelong whipping boy.
It is so important for us to dig into our very deepest heart of hearts and acknowledge the disparities between memories. We should also ask ourselves why it so important for us to be right, at the expense of someone else being wrong. Couldn’t it just be that we remember things differently? Can you imagine how differently the previous conversation would have been had either of them asked me what my recollections of that time were?
It may also help if we consider why some people need so badly to hold onto a memory. What is missing in their lives that makes that memory, whether good or bad, so vitally important to their existence?
The next time you are with an old friend or family member and they say, “remember when….,” listen with an open mind and heart. You may have the unique opportunity to see something brand new—a side you never knew existed…and you may be able to ease a broken heart.