Families fall apart in myriad ways. I see it all the time in my work with counseling clients, and my own family is not immune to this fracturing.
After two years of estrangement, I found my father at the La Penita Thursday Market, manning his real estate booth (see D is for Dad). Or should I say, my travel companion (MTC) found him and breathlessly reported back to me.
“He looks like he’s having issues moving, and his eye is kind of funky,” she said. “You really should go over and see him.”
I wasn’t sure. After the initial wash of relief that he was still alive, I chafed at the fact that he had not responded to my emails and texts telling him I would be in the area. I didn’t know what sort of reception I would get. I wasn’t sure I could handle him refusing to see me. But that was my frightened child self.
My adult self, my Mother Self, knew differently. I couldn’t imagine refusing to see one of my own children, no matter how hurt I might be, no matter what they might have done, no matter what their feelings for me. And like I say hundreds of times a week (it seems) to my therapy clients, “we are all more alike than we are different. If you feel this way, chances are others do as well. Operate from that assumption rather than from fear.”
Still, I stood, immobilized by my fear, feet frozen to the cobblestones among the push and shove of gringos haggling over pesos with the artisans and tchotchke vendors. The vibrant colors of Mexico blazed in the early morning sunlight.
“Go see him, Pam,” MTC urged. “He might not have much time left.” Maybe she was being hyperbolic regarding his health (after all she didn’t have a baseline), but she did have recent experience with her own mother’s death, her own problematic parent. “What do you have to lose?”
I often find myself describing family systems to my therapy clients as a mobile, a delicately balanced objet d’art, and when one piece is moved (or removed), the entire piece is thrown out of alignment. In order to restore balance, the other pieces must shift positions or forever be askew.
But, systems resist change. Especially the family system. It seems easier for the missing or moved piece of the mobile to simply resume its assigned place rather than for the other pieces to change. Often, family members will continue to resist the change, opting instead to dangle there in their dysfunction, rather than shifting and adapting to a new arrangement in order to restore optimal functionality.
So it was when my parents divorced at the turn of the last millennium. For the better part of twenty years, I resisted my father’s new reality, his new marriage, his move to Mexico, his pursuit of his happiness, irritated at the changes, the inconveniences, the occasional bad behavior.
Our own Family Fun Mobile grew even more askew when Dad’s wife emailed mid-pandemic (or texted or possibly even called) my brother and then me to ask if we could take care of Dad for a couple of weeks while she had hip surgery. Reader, it seems petty in retrospect, but that request sent us over the metaphorical cliff.
For starters, I had just put my house on the market and literally had no place to house Dad, had I been willing, but I had also spent the past few years caring for Mom, his ex-wife, who had dementia and was now in a care facility. I continued to harbor resentment for what I saw as his abandonment of her (to be fair, she was perfectly healthy when they divorced). Still. Somehow, I saw him as responsible for her all these years later. Even though I can’t imagine being held responsible for my ex-wife even five years after our split.
And I continued to be irritated about how he had treated me when I came out as a 17-year-old lesbian (it wasn’t great, Reader, but it was over 40 years ago). My brother’s refusal to look after Dad sprung from deeper, more recent wounds, but without getting into details that are not mine to share, suffice it to say, I stuck up for my little brother. As I am wont to do.
Long story short, we didn’t just tilt our mobile. We ripped it down and threw it in the trash.
And that’s where it was as I stood in the hot Mexican morning trying to decide if I could begin the process of repair. Our family had fallen apart in some very specific ways. Could it be salvaged?
I took a deep breath and decided to put what I knew into practice, to be the grown up adult I knew myself to be. I told MTC I would find her later, and I walked down that cobblestone path toward forgiveness.