I welcomed my sister-in-law with open arms when she came into our family. Only the second girlfriend my younger brother had ever introduced to me, I knew she must be something special.
Out of everyone in our family, our mother had the most trouble accepting her.
It was because Marilyn is black and we are white.
“I was looking at a picture of her, and her nose – did you see her nose? She’s black!”
“Yes mom, I know. And our Catholic faith teaches that we’re all the same on the inside, right? So I don’t see any problem.”
Truthfully, the problem was that my mother had been raised in a prejudiced household. I left her to work it through.
She did, in time. In fact, Marilyn became a favorite.
This didn’t surprise me. Marilyn seemed kind, intelligent, soft-spoken, calm, patient, and professional. I couldn’t imagine her ever getting angry. One day I even told her so.
“Oh, I have a fiery side,“ she said.
I wish I had recognized that statement as foreshadowing unpleasant events to come.
Fast forward a couple of years, to when I was 33. That’s when I found myself in the midst of a sudden health crisis. That winter, I got sick with pneumonia, double mastitis, frequent fevers and boils. Some other symptoms were mystifying, like the brain fog that left me unable to think. I was making the rounds of area doctors for insights and answers, when one physician diagnosed me with a severe electrolyte imbalance. He told me I could’ve had a heart attack at any time.
I was in chaos. That’s the best word to explain what I was going through at that time in my life. My world had been rocked and I felt scared, helpless and alone.
I landed in psychotherapy, hoping it might help and, thankfully, it did. As I began to allow my personal truths into the light, my health issues began to miraculously resolve.
I don’t know what I expected from therapy (and I still don’t). Did I want it to fix me? To heal my relationships?
Well, what happened as a result of my time in therapy was this: I began to see what in my life was not working for me. At the top of the list were my stringent rules-based Catholic faith, and my relationship with my often mean, punitive, withholding, triangulating borderline mother.
I began to pull away from my church and my domineering mother, as part of my healing process. My brother and sister-in-law somehow got caught in the middle, between my mother and me.
That’s when I got to witness my sister-in-law’s fiery side. She confronted me, a few weeks after the birth of her first and only child. I’m sure she was a mess of raging emotions at that time, but she came off as righteous and coherent, judgemental and critical.
She beckoned me into the hallway outside their Manhattan appointment and lit into me. Then she said, “Your mother is a wonderful person!”
And that’s all it took – the damage was done.
Her decision to take sides rather than remain neutral hurt me deeply. While I understand that she couldn’t be what I needed in that moment, I’m still not completely over it.
That was almost eleven years ago.
After that conversation in the hallway, I pulled away from her and my brother, and concentrated my efforts on healing myself and raising my family.
Today, things are better between me, my brother, my sister-in-law and even my mother, and I’m grateful. Although I’ve noticed that Marilyn likes to drop little reminders my way of her apparent belief that adult children should never get angry at their parents.
I know that’s about her, and recognize that perhaps my very presence and actions challenge something she holds dear.
Regardless, we are not close now, nor were we ever, I see. The same goes for my brother, despite my heartfelt yearnings that things were different between us, and that the events of eleven years ago never happened.
I suppose this is the biggest impediment to my healing, to letting go. Being stuck on wishing, hoping, fantasizing, and dreaming that things wouldn’t/didn’t/shouldn’t have gone the way they did.
Even though they did.
I desperately want to believe that if I hadn’t gone up to visit them that weekend, we’d all be in a different place. We’d be close. There would be more love between us.
Giving voice to this most desperate wish of my heart lessens its secret pain and hold on me.
While another part of me reasons that if it didn’t happen that weekend, it would’ve been some other one.
Because what happened, happened. The end. It was painful, yes. But I got to see the family dynamic that was operating at that time. The experience helped me understand something about my family members. I got to decide how to be in relationship to them, going forward.
Yes, the experience hurt me deeply, but I am still here, living and breathing and healing.
And willing to accept life as it is.