Friday, August 24, 2007

Family Endures

I was talking to my cousin, Helene, on the phone this morning. We talked about a book she is writing about our family. Helene and I are first cousins. Our mothers were sisters. They came to this country from Russia after WWI. Helene is writing the story of our family in Russia and then in America up to the point when all the cousins of our generation were born. I am the youngest cousin of my generation.

Helene said to me, "In essence I am looking for people who no longer exist and I am finding them." She is giving new life to our mothers and aunts and uncles, to our granparents and great grandparents. They will no longer be two dimensional pictures in an old album. She is infusing them with personalities, with hopes and dreams.

"Does family remember family?" she asked me. "There is something that pulls families apart and brings them back together. Something in the DNA that makes us recognize each other."

I agreed with her and, to illustrate her point, will relate a story from my own recent experience, but on the paternal side of my family. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, went to college in Boston, then moved to California. In essence I moved away from my family of origin to find my own way in the world. While I kept in contact with my mother's side of the family, I lost touch with the uncles, aunts and cousins on my father's side.

In the last few years I started to reconnect with some of my first cousins on my father's side of the family, when I came to Pittsburgh to visit with my step mother who lives in a nursing home there. Email helps keep us in touch with each other's lives now and erases time and distance.

A few months ago I got an email from my cousin, Marcia, who got my email address from her brother, Phil. Her father and my father were brothers, which makes us first cousins. We had not seen or heard from each other since we were in high school - over 40 years ago!!! We have each been married, had children, grandchildren, but never did our paths actually cross. Marcia told me via email that she was planning a trip from her home in Chicago to an island in Alaska where grizzly bears lived. She wanted to know whether she could stop by our house on the way to visit for a few days. We live in Washington state.

I said of course - come on over! And then I put the dates of her visit on my calendar. I didn't give it much thought until a week before she was to arrive, when she emailed me again to give me her flight arrival time and cell phone number. "Wow, she's really coming," I said to my husband, Jer. "I really do not know her at all. What if we don't get along?"

My husband and I discussed her upcoming visit. I realized I really wasn't worried about her coming. "If she wants to come and see you, it is meant to be," Jer said. "Trust to Intent (the cause behind all actions) that you and Marcia will connect in a meaningful way."

I agreed. Rather than feeling apprehensive, I was actualy looking forward to her visit. When the day arrived I picked her up from the airport shuttle with my grandchildren in tow. She was short with curly hair like me and completely without makeup of any kind - also like me. We went to a park so she could stretch her legs and the kids could play. As we walked along a path together, we were both feeling the pieces of our separate lives - so long apart - coming back together.

Marcia is a healer, trained in Healing Touch Therapy. She also studies with a Cherokee Shaman. While my path has been to study with east Indian holy men and women, the lessons we have been learning were basically the same. We were both actively pursuing a path of devotion and learning on the way to (hopefully!) enlightenment.

Marcia helped me to heal a nagging chronic injury to my feet. She held my grandson's energy while he underwent surgery to repair decay to his teeth, she taught my granddaughter how to make princesses out of Hollyhock flowers, she bought me the book "Animal Speaks", she went running with my husband, Jer. When she left three days later I could not imagine a time when we were not connected, when our lives were far apart.

I never met Marcia's husband - a Rabbi who died six years ago. I have never met her three children, her six grandchildren. She never met any of my children or grandchildren until she came for this three-day visit. It didn't matter. The family that we are both a part of pulled us back together, helped us reconnect.

We realized how similar our childhoods had been. Both of our mothers died when we were very young and both of our fathers died when we were teens. Marcia is six years older than I am, and she often spent the summers at our house with my older sister before I was born and when I was a baby. She had loving memories of my mother, the mother I lost when I was three.

The visit was a blessing to us both in so many ways. We regained a part of our past and enriched our present. If we never see each other again, we will be forever changed by this three-day slice of time spent together. On the shuttle back to SeaTac Airport, Marcia wrote to me: "I am feeling and thinking of our time together, which seems like it always was. I want to thank you...for the gift of who you are that allowed for the seamless relationship we had and have."

It is never too late to reconnect, to touch the life of someone we once knew and loved. Family can nurture us in all phases of our lives: as babies, children, young adults, crones. There are reasons we were born to our own particular families. We have lessons to learn, gifts to give and receive. I am fortunate to have such wonderful cousins on both sides of my family. Family endures, love endures, hope endures. And so it is.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Just What Do We Actually Deserve?

The other day I had a very intense discussion with my younger son, Gabriel. He is 27 and his older (and only) sibling, Joseph, is about to turn 32.

Gabriel just completed his 4th quarter at our local community college. He has plans to go on for a 4-year degree in computer science at a nearby university. This is nothing short of a miracle to me, since Gabriel dropped out of high school in his junior year. He got his GED, but that was all he was willing to do as far as his education was concerned. He also got married at 18 and was a father at 20. He and his wife are still together (they celebrated their 9th anniversay recently) and they now have two children.

Back to the intense discussion: I jokingly told Gabriel that Joseph was so worried that Gabriel was going to get his BA before he did, that he re-enrolled at University of Washington! Joseph has been going to college on and off since he graduated from high shcool. He has many credits and a few different majors and an AA degree but no 4-year degree. I guess sibling rivalry has its good points, if it inspires Joseph to finish his education along with Gabriel!

I thought the situation was humorous, but it touched off a long string of associations for Gabriel going back to when they were teens and I gave Joseph a car when he was 17. I didn't give one to Gabriel. Actually, my partner at the time bought one for Gabriel, but he put restrictions on the use of the car and Gabriel resented them so much that he eventually lost the car entirely. My partner ended up giving the car to Joseph who ran it into the ground.

Gabriel was so upset as he talked to me. "I deserved to have a car given to me just like Joseph did! You stayed with my dad until Joseph was grown up, but you didn't wait for ME to grow up before you separated. I deserved to have both of my parents as long as Joseph did. I live nearby and see you all the time (I take care of his children 3 days/week), but Joseph lives in Seattle and you hardly ever see him." Get the picture?

To my credit and Gabriel's, this phone discussion did not escalate into outright anger and harsh words. I knew he was upset and I saw it as an opportunity to help him work through his resentments and get to the unmet needs underneath. I kept my voice calm. I went back over the events and let him know how I remembered them. I told him I was sad that his father and I were unable to stay together until he grew up. And I talked about being able to move past old resentments, to try to understand that we - none of us - deserve anything to be given to us.

I was able to give Joseph my old car when he turned 17, but I was in a different place when Gabriel turned 16. My partner, Mark, wanted to give Gabriel a car before I felt he was ready. He thought that Gabriel would be able to earn more car priveleges, but that only made Gabriel angry and rebellious. He was hanging out with wild and dangerous kids. He lost interest in his studies, in his wrestling and soccer and baseball, and eventually dropped out of high school all together.

When Gabriel wanted to get married at 18 at first I was totally against the idea as you can imagine. But then I saw that he was craving some limits, some way out of the tailspin he found himself in. His girlfriend, Jackie, was very straight and innocent. She was also a hard worker and she had clear goals for herself and her family-to-be. She was able to give Gabriel the limits he would not accept from his father or from me, and a way out of the wild crowd he found himself in. And now, 9 years later, he is able to go back to school and study hard and get all A's.

When Gabriel heard that Joseph was horning in on his school experience, it triggered a lot of unfinished situraions and feelings. We were able to work through them together. Gabriel was able to hear me say to him that laying blame on others for his own decisions and actions is not an impeccable way to live; that our only true goal in my opinion is enlightenment, freedom from the circle of birth and death. Gabriel did not deserve a car just because his brother got one. He has his own karma, his own path to follow, his own lessons to learn.

I love both of my children and I know that they are very different. Hopefully I will be around for a while as they walk their dharma, their own unique path to wisdom and enlightenment and as I in turn walk mine.