Thursday, September 11, 2014
Reliving the Past
Yesterday she thought I was her brother, who happens to be my old man. It was probably all the medication, although it’s hard to tell. My dad has been dead for six years now, and I don’t want to be him, alive or dead. So it was a bit of an affront to be called “Bob,” although she didn’t mean it badly. She was just reliving her past. As it turned out, so was I.
I’ve avoided my extended family – both sides of my mom’s and dad’s families - for decades. It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t do anything other than treat me kindly as their grandson or nephew or cousin, whatever the case was. But my own history with my parents was so fraught with bad memories and times I’d rather forget that I consciously chose not to try to re-engage old relationships. And after a certain point – say, when your own kids move out of the house, and you haven’t seen these people since you yourself were a kid – there’s just too much that has happened to go back.
At least that’s what I thought. What changed my mind was death; my parent’s death, and other deaths. My mom has been dead for 22 years, my dad for 6, and there’s been some substantial healing in the meantime. It’s not that I’ve forgotten any of it. The memories are still fresh, and there is no forgetting. But I’m trying to forgive anyway, not because forgiveness is deserved or earned, but because it’s undeserved, and it’s what I need to do to become a more whole human being. It’s a unilateral peace offering, an extended olive branch with no hands held out to take it. And other people are dying, too; aunts and uncles, lost in the fog of dementia, cousins, dead before their time. Only a few are left. There is no more time to wait.
Over the last few years I’ve been able to spend substantial time with my aunt and uncle in Michigan. I’ve always liked them. They had a bunch of children – my cousins – and I have fond childhood memories of hanging out with them as a kid. The first time I heard Bob Dylan was when my cousin Mike pulled out his “Like a Rolling Stone” 45 and played both sides. The song, in fact, took up both sides of the record – a wondrous thing – and I’ve been smitten ever since. There were picnics and family reunions, trips to Dearborn Village, one hot summer night standing in the back yard watching a strange orange glow to the east. That was Detroit, burning down.
As my uncle, who is 90, tells me, it wasn’t always easy. He wasn’t always easy. He had a temper, and he drank too much, and he had some redneck attitudes. But I see him now – this sweet, kind old man who weeps when he remembers his dead children, and who tells me that he’s thrilled, overjoyed, to see me, and who means it – and all of that history, all of the crap from the past, melts away like snow in May. My own parents got worse. They started out, more or less in love, and their dicks and their misshapen hearts and their mental illnesses and their addictions got the better of them, and they ended up in a very dark, very bitter place. My aunt and uncle have done a 180. They’ve gotten better; old wine in old wineskins, as fine and mellow as two human beings can be. They hold each other, two shriveled bodies sharing warmth, and heat, and 66 years together, and they are deeply in love. And I am so thankful to have rediscovered these people – my past, my present. I am so glad I didn’t miss it.
My aunt is very ill. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that yesterday was the last time I’ll see her alive. When she dies, my uncle’s heart will break. She told me yesterday – the me who might have been Andy, or might have been Bob – that she prays for me. She can call me anything she wants. Andy, Bob, whatever. She aint’ heavy. She’s my sister.