I’ve always believed that people can change. Actually, it’s not really a belief; we can count on the fact that people will change. Studying Buddhism has allowed me to more deeply understand this concept and to see how we create so much unnecessary pain for ourselves by holding onto a past version of something that has already changed. What’s interesting to me though is that I’ve always been on the opposite end of this spectrum. I like change. In fact, I find comfort in change.
However, I’m feeling stuck when it comes to relating to my family, like no matter how much I don’t want to hold onto a past version of us, I just can’t seem to get rid of it. Yes, obviously, my relationship with my dad and brother has changed dramatically over time, especially since my mom died. But I feel frustrated because I wanted to see more change after her death, and instead, this last visit felt an awful lot like how it used to be, just now without Mom. I find myself wondering if there’s something so deeply rooted in each of us and in the family group itself that no matter how many other changes take place, when we get together, we’ll always go back to what it was like when my brother and I were kids. I know there’s a ton of research out there about the psychology of families, and one day when I’m not mothering, teaching, writing and music-ing, I’ll look it up and be fascinated. But even if I did have that time right now, I feel like I need to make more sense out of my own family before diving into applying psychological theory to it.
Let me explain. I wrote the bulk of Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig Part 1 back in July on the third day of our summer visit. My husband, baby, dogs and I stayed in Kentucky for four more days after that, totaling a week of us living with my dad in his two-bedroom apartment. I love my dad – he’s so funny, we have a lot of simpatico, and we truly, deeply enjoy one another – but a week is far too long for any adult to stay in her hometown with her dad, especially when they both have anxiety disorders. Despite my solid attempts at staying present, shit from my past kept boiling up and I kept missing my mom and worrying about a future full of dead people (I actually don’t fear my own death that much but completely dread being left alive after all of my people have died). With my dad’s cancer appointment looming on the last day of the visit, Dad and I were both operating at record-breaking anxiety highs and got into a heated debate over gun control, of all things. It is no secret that I share the exact opposite views of my father on many issues, but I’m really good at censoring myself and avoiding key topics during visits. But between the anxiety and the ghosts of my past and the cancer appointment and the exhaustion of being a mom and a daughter at the same time, I let my guard down and it got ugly.
We recovered. There were sincere apologies and hugs before bed. But I still had a lot of emotions churning through me and cleaning is my favorite compulsion, so I attacked that sink of dirty dishes like only the OCD can do. About halfway through, as I was angrily scrubbing a plate, heart racing, stomach clenching, annoyed at my father for not hearing me, annoyed at myself for getting so emotional, annoyed at my brother for not being there, I burst out laughing. This exact moment of anxiously washing dishes and feeling these particular emotions was so, so familiar. I just hadn’t experienced it in the three years since Mom had died.
In some ways, it was comforting. Yes, this is what my relationship with my family feels like, and things were so thrown off by my mother’s death that we’d forgotten how to be mad at one other. Those three years after her death allowed my father and I to become more honest and much closer with one another, and my brother and I to grow more into our own people and respect one another in a deeper way. The three of us broke down barriers and became more openly loving and just more open in general. But we were also delicate with one another and perhaps too lax about this newfound openness. Most adult children do not tell their adult parents and siblings everything about their lives. In fact, many families function well because of the boundaries they’ve established. The gun control blowout was a reminder of this very important lesson.
But in other ways, this moment felt bad. Like, mom’s death bought us three years and now we’re back to how it used to be where despite how much we love each other, we also make each other anxious. So as my car full of creatures rolled closer and closer to Kentucky for our Christmas visit, I kept wondering, What is my relationship with my dad and brother going to be like this time?
I won’t keep you in suspense – it was quite enjoyable but also anxious-making. We had some delicious meals and fun conversations and silly jokes, and yes, I also found myself angrily scrubbing dishes, heart-racing, stomach-clenching, annoyed at my dad for not hearing me, annoyed at myself for being so emotional, annoyed at my brother for not responding to my texts. But this is how it is, you know? A lot of things have changed and a lot of things haven’t. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. We love and enjoy each other and it is truly special to see my dad with my son, to see my son with my brother’s sons. The future of our family feels promising. This is all good stuff. Perhaps the real issue here isn’t that we aren’t completely open with one another or that we make each other anxious, but that I wanted to see more of a change or a different kind of change than what actually occurred.
I started this piece by writing about how people create unnecessary pain for themselves through holding onto a past version of something, but here I am creating unnecessary pain for myself by holding onto an imagined version of something. It can be difficult to accept life as is, but in those lovely moments when I actually am able to do that, things suddenly feel a lot easier.
Writer’s Note: It took me 100 minutes to write and edit this one. The 60 minute challenge is really hard.