The thing is, my mom is from Philly. She was born there, raised there, lived there well into her 20’s, and has gone back probably hundreds of times since then. And we were going back to her neighborhood, Roxborough, which is on top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill is the poor part of town; Manayunk. That’s where my dad is from.
That’s where Aunt Mare’s funeral was being held.
Mom was busy in the back of the car bragging about her new phone to my brother and me in the front. At the moment, she was showing off the fact that she’d downloaded the Pandora app. It blared, loud and tinny through the shit speakers on the phone. Which might have been fine if I hadn’t been exhausted from no sleep the night before, and if we hadn’t been simultaneously listening to music from the actual car stereo. Suffice it to say, I was growing annoyed.
“Mom, do you want us to plug in your phone so we can listen to your music instead of this?”
“Oh no,” she replied. “I don’t even like any of these songs!”
Then why the hell are you playing them so freaking loudly?! I thought to myself.
She continued to screw around with her phone, barely responding when Drew asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking a minute to help us with directions. “Where the fuck is the internet on this thing?!” was her response.
“Mom,” I reiterated, “We could really use your help with directions. We don’t especially know where we’re going here.”
She again barely looked up from her new toy. “I haven’t lived here in 30 years! I don’t know the way!”
10 minutes later, when we were lost, she started teasing my brother about how we were headed towards Jersey now instead of the church. My annoyance boiled over. “Well we ASKED you to help us give directions, but you were too busy playing with your new phone, so don’t go making fun of him for getting us lost!” I had raised my voice.
The next few minutes passed in uncomfortable silence.
I used the time to pull up GPS directions on my phone. I let the robot lady’s voice direct my brother while I looked out the window. Mom remained quiet in the back seat for a while.
As we got closer to the destination, Mom was paying more attention. Whether or not she was upset that I had raised my voice at her, she nonetheless opted for casual conversation. “You see those stairs there? That was the place we’d go when we were 14. Great place to drink a quart of beer … if the cops came, you’d just toss it over the stairs!”
At one point, passing the boat houses, Mom affirmed: “This is a silly way to go! This GPS is wrong!”
“Yeah,” my brother said, “Well you haven’t lived here in 30 years, so what the hell do you know?”
We actually all started laughing. The tension was broken entirely.
That’s how things were at the funeral service for my aunt. I sat between my mom and my dad, now 25 years divorced, and we cracked jokes under our breath about how mom got into a fight with the GPS, how Drew couldn’t find the car keys because he hasn’t lived in Philly for 30 years, how this parking lot or that Apple Store was a great place to drink quarts of beer when you’re 14. This is the way my family operates: drive all jokes into the ground; never take life seriously, even at a funeral.
At the reception after, I saw some family members I hadn’t seen in 20 years or more. Cousins I grew up with, whose lives had gone in separate ways, down darker paths of drug addiction and run-ins with the police, alcohol and employment problems. None of them even recognized me, and to be honest, I was fine when they didn’t say hello. Yet the cousins I know, the cousins I see a few times a year, the uncles I have remained in touch with … we all drank to Aunt Maryclair and the joking began, and I heard about a lot of good places to drink in Manayunk when you’re 14. This was my family, coping with grief and loving one another. The brief discontent in the car … no one cared. This is what it means to be part of a family.
I was telling Spain about this after dinner on Sunday night, explaining the difference between being lonely, and feeling lonely. See, I might feel lonely sometimes, but I also have that rare, lucky thing of knowing I am not alone. Between my large and ridiculous actual family, and the family of friends I have cobbled together in my life, I don’t think I ever get to say I am actually alone. I was saying to Spain that a few weeks back, facing a (I’m sure but we’ll know when I see the neurologist this week) minor medical issue with larger implications, I contemplated what I would do if it weren’t minor. The major problem with living alone is that when something goes wrong, there’s no one there to take care of you. For instance, The Window Incident. (Ask me about it sometime. It involves prospective face-eating by a less-than-helpful cat.) In this particular, it meant being worried about something that is 99% likely to be nothing at all, but not having anyone to remind me of that fact. Instead, I spent a lot of time researching my symptoms on the internet, and thus far have diagnosed at least 4 cancers, 3 tumors, and 6 different jungle viruses. I mean, honestly, what’s more likely? Dehydration, or a Brain Cloud?
Aside: Yes, I do love Joe Versus the Volcano.
But if it were actually something serious, the thought occurred to me a few weeks back that, beyond my actual family, I don’t believe there was more than one person I would actually tell about a major health issue. Because? I don’t know why … I certainly don’t want to burden anyone with my Brain Cloud, but that’s not really it.
I sat there telling Spain this, and it occurred to me that there are a few people I would tell. Because Aunt Mare didn’t tell anyone about her illness, and now I see how in some ways, that wasn’t … fair? Good? Anyway, I realized there were some people I really would tell if something major was wrong, and those people are the same people I would call my Friend Family.
And the reason I would tell them, the same reason I wouldn’t tell others … trust.
Should a Brain Cloud begin descending on my brain, I wouldn’t want to be treated any differently by people than I had been before. This means not wanting condescending sympathy from people who had never treated me that way before. There are very few people in my life I actually trust. People who have never let me down, who know me profoundly, and care about me, who think I am wonderful just as the person I am. And I would want them to treat me the same, too.
While this final piece of the puzzle fell into place Sunday night after dinner with Cynji, it actually came into play a few days earlier.
I was a second pick again.
I don’t feel a need to get into it too much, other than to say that we all have to make our choices in life to the best of our abilities. But choices have consequences. Whenever I am someone’s second pick, I think to myself, “That’s a terribly disappointing ending.”
Because the truth isn’t just that I believe I should be their first choice, though that’s true. Nor is the truth that “they always regret.” Though that is true too.
It’s a disappointing ending because, in a certain way, I don’t think I ever get over it. Because when you don’t trust new people easily, and when you already have a mountain of people who have earned trust, who don’t make you insecure and don’t make you doubt, when you know forgiveness and acceptance and love from other, actual human beings,when you have people in your life who have never made you question your hard-earned faith in them; where is there room for people who you can’t trust?
As a practice, I don’t hate. It kills me that right now there are two people in my life who have active animosity against me. And while I can espouse morality here, I really don’t know what happens to the people in my life who have only once broken my trust, but who I find incredible and wish to have as part of my life. The last two years has been full of tough new lessons in trust, and I don’t believe I am succeeding when, instead of anger, I simply feel detached from deeper feelings for those people.
And yet these people have certainly remained in my life. I only know what I feel, not what I do. I am not made of tougher stuff than that.
Last night I got a phone call from Mom, inviting me to the beach this weekend. Henri sent me a text about how good the leftovers from the dinner I made were. Dad emailed to check up on my health and to make sure I’m still seeing the neurologist on Friday. XYT gchatted to say he had watched a scary movie and was doing laundry and he was sure someone was going to spook him in the laundry room (SPOILER: they did).
I’m very lucky to have the family I have, both inherent and curated (snicker). I know that, should I actually have a Brain Cloud, or should the window fall out of its frame and onto me (again), or should I end up disappointed at being someone’s second pick again, that there are people there who will be there for me. The continuing lesson of my life in these last two years is certainly this: you can live a life of not trying, and you will never fail; or, you can live a life trying all the time, and you will fail a lot. But you will learn a lot too.
Having family means someone will always be there to pick you up and to help you get better from every screw up, every disappointment, and every lesson learned from a failure.
But part of failing is learning that not everyone you invite will become part of your family.