The year-end questions are different this year.
“I’m sure you’re really excited about coming here,” taunts my mother-in-law on the phone one Sunday, eliciting a shush from my father-in-law and this from my husband, a half-truth at best: “We’re happy to come for a visit, mother.”
At this end-of-year moment, when others are asking the big questions about life and the universe, I’m thinking about family. His, mine and ours. This holiday season we’re spending three nights in Florida with the in-laws, then I’m making a quick trip to Pittsburgh to check up on my folks. What do we do with these people we are bound to? For better or worse, extended.
Ask me what I have in common with my in-laws and I’d find it hard to answer. At some unspoken level, the difference feels like rejection.
My mother-in-law complains about our choices: our early bedtime and pre-dawn Starbucks runs, my husband’s clothes, our book habit. She gossips constantly. My head pounds and I pop an aspirin. When my husband tries to talk, she interrupts. We can hardly call this a conversation.
Televisions play non-stop in kitchen and den. (I have just turned down the sound in the den. No one is there, no one watching.) I crave silence. In between the stories about neighbors we’ve never met, she and my father-in-law snipe at one another over schedules or table settings. She breathes with difficulty and has trouble walking from the bedroom to her chair in front of the television. The constant sniping and the gossip precede aging and illness. We find it harder, with each visit, to feel sympathy, to keep trying.
My husband and I don’t know what to do with them, nor they with us. We avoid politics, religion and lifestyle. What remains? We are left stranded on rapidly melting ice floes of diminished common ground.
And then I come out to the living room one morning and find my husband kneeling at his mother’s feet, tying the shoes she can no longer reach. Later, he tells me that he has remembered a season when he had ball practice after school, and she worked his paper route. We cling to these faint glimmers of goodness; they are often all that holds us.
My trip to visit my parents feels easier, quieter. We sit, each of us lost in a book, a light snow falling outside and darkness descending. My dad, who recently broke his ankle, rides a rented scooter and my mother and I trail behind, going to the dining room for a daily meal. I will take her shopping at the post-Christmas sales, looking for pants that will hug her shrinking waist. And I know that when I go to the parking lot to meet the airport shuttle, they will come with me, dad on his scooter and mom walking slowly in the frigid air, and they will lift gloved hands in the hushed winter day to wave goodbye, and cry tears I cannot see from where I sit next to the driver, Janet, who has driven me so often I now consider her my friend.
So the new year arrives, and while others look inward or heavenward with the big questions, and make resolutions and plans, I sit and think of family. I wonder how long it will take to recover from Florida, and how soon I will need to get back to Pittsburgh to check on my folks again. I think about how much easier it is to love those we choose, rather than those we are born to. And I wonder just what this thing called family means to teach us.
The Episcopal liturgy tells us to “walk in love.” My husband and I will set our resolve, send mother’s day cards and buy expensive plane tickets for visits that feel nothing like love. Could there be something to that?
Love. Maybe the point is nothing more than that. We are born to it and called to it. Love teases us and eludes us and sneaks up on us when we don’t expect it. Love is there in the shoe-tying, and in the wave goodbye and the tears. And it’s there, too, I believe, in the gossip and the sniping and the memories of how we all let each other down one more time. Family teaches us that love is there even when there seems nothing to grab onto. We find it most evident when, from amidst the darkness and the hurt, we catch a glimpse of that Advent star in the silent and holy winter sky.