Don’t wait too long

I was having dinner with friends of a friend, a couple that I have come to like quite a bit. At some point in the evening she said that she had three sisters but hadn’t much to do with any of them because she and they had nothing in common, because among other reasons her sisters were Republican, conservative fundamentalist Christians. Sticking my nose in where it doesn’t necessarily belong (not for the first time!) I suggested that perhaps my recent experience might be relevant.

In 1958, when I was 12, my older brother joined the Air Force. In a very real way that was the end of our interaction for most of our lives. The following year, the brilliant meteor that was John F. Kennedy lighted my skies, and I became the first Democrat my family had ever known. A few years later I became a college graduate. And I had always been an avid reader of books. All these things sent me in one direction, my brother John in another. Plus, I left the Church while I was in my teens, and John stayed.

This only accelerated as time went on. Politically, his 22 years in the Air Force pushed him ever more to the right, it seemed to me, and no doubt to him I seemed to move ever more to the left. He liked to work with his hands at something tangible, and I liked working with my mind at something intangible. He lived among tools, I lived among books. Without antagonism, we went our separate ways. In the years between 1958 and 2007, I think we each visited the other’s home twice, and we didn’t often call, either.

In a way, nothing wrong with that. There’s no guarantee that being born to the same parents will make any two people close intellectually or spiritually. We had a certain respect for each other and we recognized that we were following different stars.

And yet –

You weren’t born into your family by mistake, however it may seem. You weren’t the royal child raised by mistake among peasants. (I gather from something I read in Jung that this is a common enough fantasy theme among children when they are feeling misunderstood and out of place.) Just because you and your brothers or sisters are unlike does not mean you were randomly shoveled into the same family. There might be a reason why you have just the brothers or sisters that you have!

My brother contracted cancer and was sent home told he had only a few months to live. Our brother and sisters and I began calling him regularly, and since neither he nor I cared to rehash old political differences, and since we never agreed on the meaning of anything happening around us, and since we didn’t want to conduct our conversations on tiptoe, we talked instead about other things, realer things, such as what he had done, what I had done, in our work lives, and what we liked to think about, and even our respective experience of my father’s farm. There were surprises. We were surprised, for instance, to find that we shared a deep interest in airplanes in general (dating in my case, to the old glamorous X-15). It became fun, talking every other day or so.

Then after only a few months he was dead, and we were burying him, and I realized that death really is an end to certain possibilities. It is not the end of things for the soul, of course, but it certainly is the end of in-body communication. It is no more a tragedy than is birth, but it is no less final a change. It left me not so much grieving that he was gone as that we had wasted so many years going our separate ways, not delighting in each other.

It’s easy enough to say “we don’t have anything in common,” but I think that probably really means, “we don’t much recognize or value the things we do have in common, because where we’re different looms too large.” Well and good, but maybe when you do look a little closer, you’ll find it would have been worth your while to become better acquainted.

Just in case, you might explore the possibility. Don’t wait too long.

6 thoughts on “Don’t wait too long

  1. The same could be said for people of different neighborhoods, cultures, ethnicities, countries. Reach out now to those who are “different”. Many communities hold get-to-know you events. Step out of the safe place in which you reside, and attend!

  2. However, it is a two-way street. It isn’t possible to resume communication with a sibling who doesn’t want to, or whose communication consists of blaming and whining. Common ground must be attained through common effort, even if it is 90-10.

  3. This is a very interesting posting by Frank DeMarco, and I cannot help thinking that the impending holiday season makes many among us think deeply of both connections and departed loved ones.
    As a person without siblings, who had a mother without siblings, and now a daughter without siblings, I hope you are thankful this Thanksgiving for your extended family. The “holidays” are always a challenge for me to create some sort of experience that might be memorable. Add to this that my work patterns accelerate with being employed at events during the season. I think that the holiday season causes various pressures on many people which can cause guilt and depression which are unnecessary. The post holiday season sees more suicides than any other time of the year.
    Your article comments on family connections, which though very valid, are not the only connections which we need to honor. Other connections are most certainly not by accident either. I would echo the sentiment “Don’t wait too long.” and extend it to meaningful relationships beyond the family.

  4. As you found with your brother, there are always places where we can intersect with those that we think are too different from ourselves in views and beliefs, and if we are willing to do a little exploration, we typically find more points of intersection than we would expect. For me, it all boils down to allowing ourselves and others to be who we are.

  5. Well said, Frank. Even more important, well written. I know many dysfunctional families would benefit from reading this. I hope it goes around the web and helps people come together as a real family unit this holiday season and thereafter. There are too many regrets of grievance irresolutions that should have been healed before the body is gone.

  6. Very thoughtful comments, each of you. Thanks.

    I suppose that we all have two families — our biological families, large or small or non-existent, and our selected families, those to whom we are drawn, with whom we have bonded. The first is more apt to be challenging, if only because they can be alienated but cannot cease to be your family, but your friends can cease to be your friends. Both are precious.

    Of course, if we look at it straitly enough, it is true what religions have always insisted: “All men are brothers.” We are all one. What fluctuates is our ability to cast our nets widely enough to overcome differences in appearance and circumstance. An old, old joke has one Czech asking another if the Russians, being fellow Slavs, are friends or brothers to the Czech nation. The second Czech says, “they must be our brothers; you can choose your friends.” I suppose in a sense that’s true of all of us; we extend our limits so far and no farther, unless and until a moment of grace enables us to open up a little more.

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