(from a short story I wrote in 2009)
Yesterday, we went to Jane’s house for Thanksgiving. It was an outstanding Thanksgiving Day; Lonnie was there for the first time in over ten years, along with his wife, Jill and their kids, Alexandra was there (she usually spends Thanksgiving with her Dad), and we all enjoyed ourselves so much that we didn’t really want to leave. Jane had to push us out the door, just about. We finally left around 8:00 or so.
Anybody who knows me is aware of the fact that I don’t have a close relationship with my parents- that’s no secret, but on Thanksgiving, we all got along so well, you’d have never thought that there had ever been so much as a tiff between us. I found myself looking at them and kicking myself for ever saying that I didn’t care if I ever talked to them again. I justified that thinking by saying, “That relationship doesn’t work for me- I get hurt if I’m close to them, so I have no choice but to refuse to acknowledge them and live a separate life.”
The truth is, my relationship with my parents doesn’t work, and I do get hurt when I get too close to them, but to justify severing all ties forever, and saying, “I’ll never speak to them again…” Well, there’s a reason why “Never Say Never” is a cliché. And while I’m digressing, let me just say, it’s pretty dangerous to get to the point where you can justify anything. When you allow yourself to justify anything you want to do, and anything you want to say, and any position you want to take, you are, in the long run, setting yourself up for a very, very hard fall.
So, as we sat around Jane’s house yesterday, I started thinking about my family. How would I feel if, suddenly, I didn’t have them anymore? What was my role in the broken relationships? What responsibility do I own? Do I really want to say “never”?
And these weren’t deep thoughts, they were just flashes, fleeting flashes, if I may be so alliterate, just little thoughts here and there. Once, I turned my head towards Dad’s direction and he was just standing there, looking at me. I wondered what he was thinking while he was watching me sit there in that rocking chair, rocking back and forth while the boys played their ballgame. And there was another time, while we were playing Bingo, that I was looking at him. He’d said something funny and I glanced over at him and laughed when he said it, but I kept looking at him and one of those little thoughts came into my head and I kept looking. And then he looked over my way and I turned my head just quickly enough to be obvious about it.
You know how people joke and say, “Family- you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them”. Those jokes are somewhat annoying to me. More annoying are the jokes that go something like, “Women- you can’t live with them and you can’t shoot them”.
So, back to Thanksgiving. It was a relaxed, breezy Thanksgiving Day, lots of fun and laughs and good conversation and good food. My glancing thoughts didn’t even seem to register in my brain. I didn’t consider those thoughts until this morning while I was out shopping with Alexandra.
We got out of bed pretty early and left in a hurry for Hanes Mall. We shopped until we’d had enough, and left. Getting out of the parking lot took a while and, as I sat there, my mind raced, as it usually does, and I thought about Thanksgiving and my kids and my siblings, and I thought about getting old and how much that was going to suck, then I thought back to when I was young and then I thought about Christmas and then I thought about money and how I was going to pay for everything I’d promised everyone, and then I thought about my gramma, because she used to do the same thing, and then I thought about Merle.
Merle is my grandfather. Gramma died back in 2006, and we lost touch with Merle after that. Merle isn’t my biological grandfather. My father’s dad, he died before I was born- back when my dad was just 18 years old or so. Merle married my gramma when I was seven or eight years old, and from then on, he was my grandfather. He was kind but always a little distant.
My racing mind got stuck on Merle. I thought about him over and over and I finally settled down and let myself really think about him. I hadn’t seen him since gramma’s funeral, almost three years ago. He and I had butted heads, we’d argued, but he’d always been good to me. Any disagreement we ever had, he seemed to forget by the next time we saw each other.
“We’re going to see Merle today,” I told Alexandra as I forgot about my thoughts and came back to reality. I was finally at that stop sign- I was next to turn down toward the stoplight, and I had a choice as to which way I was going to turn.
“Merle.” Alexandra asked, but not in an inquisitive way. It was more like she was pondering out loud.
I turned left out toward Silas Creek Parkway and we headed for the assisted living community I’d heard he was living in. I got there and pulled up to the gate and finally got someone on the other end of the speaker.
“My name is Camilla Vestal, and I’m here to see my grandfather, Merlin Wiebers,” I said, robotically. Alexandra laughed at me, and we giggled at how stupid I sounded talking into that speaker. Whoever I was talking to pushed a button and opened the gate. I headed down the roadway. I knew where I was going because I worked at Brookridge years ago. I wasn’t headed to one of their houses or condominiums; I drove to the geriatric building. To be blunt, it’s the building where people go when they’re about to die. I parked the car and Alexandra walked with me into the building and to the receptionist’s desk.
“My name is Camilla Vestal, and I’m here to see my grandfather, Merlin Wiebers,” I said, robotically. Alexandra didn’t laugh, probably because she knew by then that I wasn’t being funny. I was nervous and sad and excited and composed and nervous and composed and sad all at the same time. I was trying to act cool, and she was playing along. I appreciated it. The receptionist smiled and gave me his room number and showed me the way to the elevator. “There’ll be signs on the wall when you get off the elevator,” she said, ” there’ll be signs showing you to the room.”
I got to his room and saw his name on the door. It was a plate. A nameplate. “How… permanent of them,” I thought. “He’s going to be here for a while,” and for Merle, I knew a while meant forever. I knocked.
“Come on in,” I heard. I walked in, peering a step at a time around the corner and finally saw him sitting there on his bed.
“Merle?” I said.
“Oh my goodness,” he said, wide-eyed. “Oh my goodness, come on in! What a surprise to see you!” he said.
He sat there on the side of his bed, shoulders hunched, in a plaid shirt and denim pants. He directed me to sit down.
“And who is this young lady,” he asked, already knowing the answer, looking at Alexandra as she took a seat near the door. “Alexandra,” he said, “you’ve grown up so soon on me…”
My dad had warned me during our Thanksgiving Day, when I told him I was thinking about visiting Merle, “Be prepared; when I went to visit him last, he didn’t even know who I was. He might not be how you remembered him.”
But Merle remembered me and Alexandra. And he was delighted to see us. He showed us pictures of gramma, and talked about how pretty she was. He asked over and over again how we were, what were we up to, he asked about Nathan, he asked about Kendrick. Then he’d talk about gramma again.
Merle was diagnosed a few years ago. I don’t know what his diagnosis was; it wasn’t mentioned very much. But we all knew, even if we didn’t talk about it, that Merle was literally losing his mind. I didn’t see clear signs of that as I sat there talking to him, but there were a couple of times when he would lapse, lapse back into the past. “That’s the gal I married,” he said, looking at a picture of gramma when she was in her early ’40s as if that woman was going to walk in the door any minute and start dinner. He’d talk about her in the present tense, as if she were still here. But I didn’t mind it. It was almost comforting.
And there were other things he said that jerked me back from fond memories of the past and into the current reality, like, “David… David’s got a few boys now, hasn’t he?”
“No, David’s got one boy, Linus. And he has a girl, too. Remember Stacy?”
I think he caught wind of the awkward vibe and got scared that we would leave. He didn’t want us to leave, so he hugged me again and told me how good it was to see me. He talked about the old house on Ranch Drive, he said things like, “You know, when you’ve got nothin’ to do all day, you just sit here and you think. Your mind wanders, you know, and you think back to old times…”
I did know. I do know. I do know how that feels. I’ve said those words, almost verbatim to close friends of mine. “You know, when you’ve got nothin’ to do all day, you just sit here and you think. Your mind wanders, you know, and you think back to old times…”
Those are the words of a lonely soul. They aren’t the words of an elderly person, necessarily. They are the words of a sad, forgotten person. I gave him my phone number and asked how he felt about having lunch next weekend.
“I could come pick you up and we could drive down to Jimmy the Greek’s if you want,” I said.
“Yeah!” he said. “Yeah, meet me here, and maybe we’ll go visit the old house.”
I left and thought about how debilitating loneliness can be, and I thought about how many people die, not because they’re destined to die, but because they simply give up.
My mind raced again, as I navigated my way back home, and I thought about how necessary family really is. I thought about how happy Merle was to see Alexandra and me, how much he talked about gramma, how light he was after a couple of minutes of us being there compared to how heavy he seemed to be when we first walked in.
What’s the opposite of loneliness? The best answer I can come up with is, family. And by family, I mean the people who won’t stop caring about you, ever. They’re the people who will love you and laugh with you and cry with you. They’re also the people you push away when you’re feeling down. They’re the people you avoid when things are bad, because they’re the people who know you best. They’re the people you can’t live with.
But they’re also the people you can’t live without.