Saturday, August 18, 2007

Thicker than water

I've been thinking my family lately, as my grandfather isn’t faring well and the anxiety reverberates. There are repeated themes that cut across the tales of families I've heard from my friends; there are the interactions I've seen that give me pause. One boy in my past referred to his parents as Mother and Father. Not that strange, I guess, until I noticed that they always called him Son. Never his first name, not once. An incredible distance existed between them, despite their shared history and how much they knew about each other… a pattern that, over time, came to play out between him and I as well. We find ourselves re-enacting what we know. Families – patterns that have sunk in the furthest, remarks with a tenor that cuts the deepest, support that can mean the most.
My mother was not pleased with my choice to go to grad school; her indictment of my decision has surfaced regularly, if passive-aggressively, over the past six years. She and I have very different visions of my future: she sees a handsome, wealthy husband and a handful of healthy grandkids, I see tenure and book residuals and happy pets – or, as she spat vituperatively in front of her friends one day, “That’s all I have to look forward to, a series of dogs” (I was never entirely sure if she meant my canine or male companions…).
When I was home at the end of June I made the rounds of my parents’ social engagements – end-of-term parties, wedding showers for the children that had found the wealthy husband or willing housewife. Smalltalk with my parents’ friends inevitably turned to what I think of Montreal, the requisite appreciative “Ooh, McGill,” numerous polite inquiries into when I think I'll be finished. And in almost every exchange I was told how my mother raves about me, how proud she is of me. Proud. I didn’t what to say. This was something I had never heard before. Part of me was happy, relieved…
And part of me was so angry… why hadn’t I ever heard this before? I have been staring at blank pages that I can’t find the words to fill, at bank statements that balance precariously around overdraft, at dark ceilings in the middle of sleepless nights wondering if I'm only heading down this path because it’s the one I know, and always with the sense that as far as my family is concerned, I'm in this alone. And yet I do believe she’s proud of me, precisely because she’s never told me so. We don’t do emotion in my family. We do quippy deflections and sublimation and can look the other way like few other families you have seen.
Which brings me back to my grandfather. My grandfather is dying. A retiring man, he sits at the edges of the room drawing slowly on his pipe or his cigar (I will always love the thickness of that smell), raising his eyebrows at the conversations going on around him, opening his mouth to say something rumbling and trenchant, and then closing it again. He is an ardent fan of documentaries. His home brew was the first beer I ever tasted, frigid and yeasty, foaming out of the mouth of a cloudy stubby bottle. He took me aside one year at Xmas, pointed to the humidifier he had just given me, and made sure I noted the divot in the top – “You can put weed in it. Make sure it’s a small room and all the windows are closed.” I am counting on our genetic stubbornness to keep him around until the first fall paycheque so I can go to him and say goodbye.
My father has already lost his mother and his brother. My uncle died unexpectedly seven years ago, and that was the first time in my life I had seen my father fall apart. My father keeps his feelings shunted and through a regime of merciless mocking and irascible retorts made sure we did the same. In the middle of his eulogy he bowed his head, shuffled his papers, and I could barely breathe when I saw tears sliding down his stubbled cheeks. He drank so quickly and so heavily that he passed out just over an hour into the wake.
He was silent after my grandmother’s funeral (three years ago this coming October), staring at the doors of the Catholic church that was the centre of her spiritual life, and turning to point at a cluster of trees across the street. “That’s where your uncle and I would sneak out for a smoke during the service,” he told me. “Those trees have hardly grown.” He didn’t say another word for hours.
My brother and I have talked since about my father’s alcoholism. We had wondered, in the brief moments when we could talk freely on the phone, in the first few years after my uncle died. But we’re a family of drinkers – on both sides – and the other family alcoholics are never referred to as such, they’re just “going through something” or “having a hard time lately.” All we knew was that there was a sense of desperation, a determined move toward the relief of stupor, that hadn’t been in my father before. I had made it home earlier than usual for Xmas two years ago, and when it was just the four of us at dinner one night my father filled a conversational lull by saying he thought he might have a problem with alcohol. It hung there, in the silence that characterizes my family’s ability or willingness to confront cries for help and the weakness we were told they imply.
Things have been spiraling ever since, an awful outgrowth of our collective incapacity to bite back our now-instinctive tendency to turn confession into comedy. When I was home my father’s weight loss was staggering, almost as implausible as the amount of alcohol I watched him put away (and my own tolerance is remarkable). He told me, in a tone that both defied and begged me to help, that he quite literally cannot stomach more than a few morsels at a time. My mother confided in me later (emboldened by the few beers she had just had, us being rather comfortable with irony) that she was worried, that she didn’t know what to do, that he wouldn’t listen to her.
And I don’t know what to do either – there is a frustrating hierarchy in my family, he certainly won’t listen to me. The ten-hour distance feels insurmountable at times. I hear that now-familiar tone in his voice when he updates me on my grandfather’s health, of wanting to say more – to admit to being scared, being sad – and not knowing how.
We re-enact what we know, but learned habits are poor justifications. When my brother called to say that he told his girlfriend he loves her his exhilaration came not from the feeling but the telling; he told me because he knew I would recognize the distinction. I make an effort now to talk with my mother about my work. She never asks, but I tell her anyway. I ask my father what he had for dinner, when he is going to the doctor. Change does not come easily and provocation is only acceptable on the provocateur’s terms, tempers flare and silences stretch as the phone is handed to someone else. Even living within the dynamics does not guarantee you a map of the terrain.


Blogger Vila H. said...

The barest scratch and there it is: all the habits and failings through which we inexplicably relate to others. Really, it's a wonder that we ever manage to do it at all.

6:31 AM  
Blogger lizzie said...

"Even living within the dynamics does not guarantee you a map of the terrain."

The 'how did we get here as a family?' question turns to 'where do we go from here as a family?'

No map, you're right. But it sounds like you really love your family. And there is nothing—absolutely nothing—like love.

11:47 AM  
Blogger flaneur said...

Vila: Inexplicable is apt, particularly with the compelling groupings of family. And Lizzie... yeah, the love is there. I wouldn't be who or where I am without them (double-edged sword in some moments, I'm sure).

4:35 PM  

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