With apologies to my friend playwright Robert Anderson, whose title inspired me for this piece, Sunday morning I got a call from my closest relative, cousin Arlene -- really my surrogate mother, who gave me the following news:
She'd heard from her son, who'd heard from his uncle that apparently my father had died the previous night. It wasn't surprising in that he was 94, and it wasn't surprising to have learned the news in this fourth-hand manner, as I haven't dealt with my immediate family at all in a very long time. Arlene and I assumed, though she wasn't sure, that it was probably my sister who started this bizarre chain of communication that eventually found its way to me.
I will spare you most of the whys and the wherefores, and you'll just have to trust me when I explain how about twenty years ago I decided enough was enough and never bothered to put up with what I perceived to be gross insensitivities displayed by my mother, father and sister to me at varying times in my life.
Up until that point in time I bent over backwards to maintain contact and initiate visits, which were rarely reciprocated. All this in spite of many slights shown over the years and lack of support for my career choice and personal sensibilities. At a certain moment I decided that the pendulum had finally gone as far as it could go to -- dare I say -- make it cost effective from an emotional state to continue setting myself up for further let downs. I determined that if there is a scale of sorts that balances the pros and cons of a relationship, when the pain of seeing my parents and talking with them outweighed the pain of not having a relationship at all, it was a reluctant choice that had to be made if for no other reason than to keep my sanity.
And for that reason I am grieving. Not with tears over my father's passing, but for the fact that there are no tears. I grieve that it is unrealistic to express sorrow about the loss of someone you haven't seen or heard from in twenty years. When I stopped calling my parents it was not over a fight. There was nothing official that caused this prolonged estrangement. I just got tired of playing the lap dog, who was always anxious for the petting that rarely came. Indeed when I ceased my involvement with them there was no statement of concern or pain from them. It's not as if I hung up on them when they called me incessantly to find out what was wrong. They never called or wrote at all. So, I finally got the message that should have been so clear from the start.
If this were a motion picture, various characters would say, "Get over it. They're your parents." And I will admit that my childhood was a far cry from Oliver Twist. I was fed, clothed and sheltered and given the basics of a lower middle class life. But when I needed encouragement to follow my dreams I was beaten down with humiliating interactions in which they used their friends, most of whom I admired, to "talk sense" to me and make me feel quite foolish. All this to deflect the discussion from turning to their disinterest in providing financial support so that I could go to UCLA, which I never asked them to provide. I later wrote a play about this, entitled, Family Bliss, which of course it wasn't.
So, if there were a movie or more realistically a soapy Lifetime television play, this inner struggle would all be dramatized, the scenes would be replayed and at the end of the story there would be some sort of heart wrenching encounter with my parents, tears abounding all around as we faded to black.
But my life isn't a movie and I wonder if movies sometimes, in their zeal for optimism and a happy ending, don't make it that much more painful for those of us who have to live with reality. Some people do have great families, as my cousin Arlene does with her children and her late husband Ed, but many families do not, in spite of The Donna Reed Show and Bill Cosby Show fictional types that get so much attention and influence us far too much. We give way too much stock to family titles, even as they might not be earned. We have no problem shedding friends or spouses, but God forbid we do so with siblings and the folks called Mom and Dad.
What if they don't deserve our emotional output? What if they aren't worthy in spite of their going through the motions of taking care of us when we are small? I guess what I'm saying is that the necessities of life do not by themselves entitle these family members to unconditional love for the decades that follow if there are significant issues that have caused us pain and there appears no realistic way to resolve them over the years.
You are all free to do what you wish. I offer simply that my life has been happier not being chained to people simply because of genetic ties.
And still I grieve over the fact that I was not blessed with a family who loved me enough so that I might have felt the natural urge to let the tears flow when I learned that my father had died.