Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The millennium and beyond

We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.
-Anais Nin

It was eight years ago in November when my family fell apart.

Dad was a distant man, for much of my childhood. He could be angry and critical at times, and at others he was fun and playful. He liked travel and games and adventures; he took our family camping and some of us skiing, to movies, and out to eat. He as generous with presents for birthdays & holidays. Most of the time, when he wasn’t at work he was watching TV or sleeping. Or he’d be in the basement with his books and puzzles, drinking beer. When we were younger he was in night school so we rarely saw him, but when he graduated college we were all there to see it. He was an electronic engineer, and very smart. After the death of my brother his behavior became warmer with his remaining three children – his three daughters, now in our twenties. He talked more, listened more, and was more present. After I sobered up, and my younger sister also, he even drank less and sometimes didn’t drink his beer when we were visiting.

When he retired, dad wanted to move to someplace warmer, and to get out of Chicago. He and my mother had continued to travel frequently so they were considering various places and finally settled upon Albuquerque New Mexico. My father’s reasoning; there were no earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes, or landslides (as opposed to California or Florida). Both my parents liked the mountains and the desert. They bought a new house, to be built in a gated community. In early summer of 2000 they moved to an apartment in Albuquerque to await the completion of the new home.

The last time I saw my father was on Father’s day; we had a small barbeque at my grandmother’s house and played one last game of Uno. Drinking and sober, it had been our favorite game to play together. When I said goodbye, I heard dad was giving his car to my brother in law. For 20 years I had been taking buses, trains and getting rides, having lost my license when I was a teenager. I had finally cleared up my record and was getting ready to take the driver’s test. I told him this - I had before but he’d forgotten - and he felt bad he wasn’t giving the car to me, and I said it’s ok. We hugged, and said goodbye as if it was any other day.

Over the summer, waiting for the house to be finished, my father would call from New Mexico. In Chicago he almost never called but now he was excited, he was enjoying having a cell phone for the first time, and calling from a mountain or some other interesting place. They saw a lot of rainbows. It was good to hear him so happy.

On November 5th – it was a Sunday – I was at a restaurant with my sister and her husband after an AA meeting. We were just about to eat our pancakes when my sister got a call from mom on her cell phone. I knew instantly. Dad had had a heart attack and had died at the hospital; he had told them to let him go. It was his second heart attack; he’d been smoking since he was eight years old and drinking almost as long. On the day they were moving into the new house dad insisted on helping the movers, which was when it happened.

Both my sisters flew to Albuquerque right away. Since I knew my mother was not alone I decided to wait; I was working with teenagers and did not want to just leave them. My supervisor thought I was crazy for going to work but I needed to. I was also hoping to find my nephew, who was living in a college town without a phone. My brother in law drove there and got him and I was able to fly to New Mexico with my nephew. On the way to the airport, I stopped to vote, since it was Election Day. I wanted to make sure to cast my ballot against George W. Bush.

That night, in my mother’s new house, she told us she had seen a rainbow over the mountains on her way back from the hospital. She thought it was a sign – that she was supposed to live there by herself and for the first time have the experience of being on her own. She had been married young, and had never been alone before.

So we stayed up late that night in a darkened room with very little furniture, lying on the floor watching the election returns until we realized Al Gore didn’t really win Florida, or maybe he did, they were not sure….

During those few days we were all together, there were some family difficulties, though the actual "funeral" - a viewing of the body - went quite well. The five of us gathered in a small room at the funeral home with the open casket. We spoke of some memories, told dad we loved him and said goodbye. We all held hands and said the Serenity prayer.
Later, my older sister called me a bitch, and I comforted my younger sister when mom upset her. This sister is in recovery also, and one night we went out to find an AA meeting but got very lost, driving through the unfamiliar city at night. At one point I remembered we still had Dad’s ashes in the trunk, having picked them up earlier in day. They were inside a plastic bag in a cardboard box. I mentioned this to my sister, laughing about driving around with Dad in the trunk (I liked that because he did so like to travel). I found it comforting in a strange way; my sister was not amused. It spooked her. Eventually we found a meeting and it was a warm and friendly place.

My elder sister and nephew left a few days later. Mom, my younger sister and I took a drive up to the Sandia Mountains to scatter Dad's ashes. This was Mom’s idea; I never actually knew why she wanted to do this but who was I to question my mother?

It was a grey and chilly day with snow lying in patches, and as we drove over winding roads we finally found a spot with a bit of a view that sloped downward, right off old Route 66. Here we found that ashes did not exactly scatter, but my mother manged to dump them on the hillside.

I have photo I took of my mother and sister standing there on the mountainside with the empty cardboard box, smiling as if on vacation. To me it epitomizes the dysfunction of our family.

Since that day our family has never been the same. There have been no get togethers, if one doesn't count my grandmother's funeral (which is the only time Mom has come back to Chicago). Communication has been sparse, and becomes more so as the years wear on. We have our separate lives, in separate places, and although my older sister is in the area, we rarely talk. Lacking the context of family as a unit, it doesn’t seem that we can. It has gradually dawned on me that my father was the glue that held us together. Never mind that he had moved across the county, if he had lived we would still be connecting, in our own way.
Eight years later I still cannot grasp how my reality has shifted to such an extent.