Or can you? I got on a plane this past August in New York with my twenty year old daughter for the first time since the pandemic started. I am very anxious leading up to the trip. Playing out worst case scenarios has been an organizing principle for me most of my life, and I’ve been doing it since I made the reservations. Now I’m on the plane and have become kind of numb. The futility of my mental gymnastics to get control of . . . everything comes into sharp focus for me on an airplane. The flight is uneventful.
We land in hot, dry Denver, pick up the rental car, and hit the long, flat highway headed west out of the Denver airport. I look down and see that I’m going 70 mph which feels like 50. I learned to drive on these roads. The expansiveness takes my breath away and makes me queasy. I’m back. I can see ahead as far as I can see, the illusion at least of knowing where you are and where you’re going.
We arrive at our first stop, Ft. Collins, north of Denver, at my brother’s house, my tall, lanky, kind brother who owns a piece of me. He's got boney edges inside and out. But his sharp sense of humor, which he edits around me because he appreciates that I'm a walking nerve-ending, is tempered by his enormous empathy. His love is generous and wafts over me as we greet each other again. His facile intellect comes bounding out of his big eyes. He's comfortable hanging out in the gray areas of life, curious, questioning, searching, and it's there where we often connect. Upon our arrival he reins in his three dogs in a voice exactly like our long-gone father’s. But I don’t remind him of the ways he reminds me of Dad (at least not in the first few minutes I see him), ways that make me want to wrestle him to the ground and get right up in his face and say, Where have you been?! My brother doesn’t want to hear that he is in any way like Dad -- the guy who left his wife and four young kids high and dry. End of story.
We sit at his kitchen table over lunch, my brother, his wife, and my niece and nephew – my blood relatives I so rarely get in the same room with. Conversation flows, commonality wafts through the air, communion, belonging. In the middle of my carrot dipped in hummus it hits me how much this all means to me, how much I’ve longed for it. How grateful I am my daughter is here. When you are in the presence of something that you habitually need to the point you don’t notice the need any more, it’s disorienting when you actually get it. This is what I came for.
We head to our Airbnb that evening, which looked like a house on the site, but now it’s clear it is really a converted commercial building. Hence a door to the outside in the bedroom, and a door in the bathroom that leads to another residence where you can hear people talking and a washer and dryer going. I sit down to sort out why I am now so anxious?! What’s the problem? I could explain it as the traveling and coming back “home” and this disconcerting place where I have to sleep, and that's all true, but there is something more. When I drop out of my racing, repetitive mind, the culprit bubbles up and makes itself known -- humiliation –- I am humiliated. I am so deeply humiliated. I am a child again who doesn't know how to handle what is happening in her home, and knows she doesn't know, and knows she's in trouble, and is consequently very afraid. It's been decades but the fear I experienced as a kid is right there under my skin, and the helplessness and humiliation rides right along side of it.
I turn on the meditation app and breathe. I know I'm going to be anxious on and off throughout this trip, so there is some peace in accepting that fact. These feelings arise often in my day to day life, but here, I am in danger of being taken over by them.
The next day my brother and I and my daughter drive north, toward Wyoming. My brother sits next to me and we talk about this or that, and it’s as mundane as can be and as easy and hopeful as things can be.
After our father left, our mother married a man who threatened, berated, and frightened us and stood between us and our mother, which she allowed. Our father died when I was thirty-one and our mother just died a year ago, so my brother and our two sisters and I are actually orphans now, but it’s not a new feeling to me. I was never able to look up from myself and really see my siblings and feel that we were all part of each other’s lives. I was too occupied with my own survival on the sinking ship.
I long for this dear brother next to me and closeness to my sisters, but being with them is also being back on the ship. For decades I unsuccessfully tried to tell myself it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. I’ve finally stopped that. It’s hard to be with these people, the other three who’ve known me longer than anyone, the other three our father left, the three who witnessed and were also victims of the berating and the threatening and the fear, the three that me and my humiliation grew up with. But when I crack the hard outside of my shame a bit, and feel those first furtive glances hello and shy hugs and how-are-yous, an intense intimacy is there for the taking. This is why I came.
When we get out of the car on the high Colorado plains the air is heavy and smoky and dull from the fires out West. My brother is pissed that his beloved views of the Rockies are obscured, but I remember them, I don’t need to see them today. The mountains loomed in the west my whole young life, like a painting hanging in the sky. We hike and take pictures. He almost steps on a rattlesnake. My hyper vigilance kicks in and I begin to plan the steps I would take if one of us did get bit. Mostly I just want to get back in the car. I have a persistent internal push and pull in these Colorado Rockies. They are a part of me and seriously unsettling. The geography, topography, air of where we come from plant a permanent stake in all of us. Isn’t that supposed to give us a feeling of kinship? I’ve never felt capable in this place –- hiking, skiing, camping, the wilderness, hang the food in the trees so bears don’t get it, what?! I’m slow and not sure-footed, my lungs never seem full, and what are those sounds?
I hang out with my brother for the next three days, grab some meals, watch some TV, and we drop into an easy side-by-side rhythm. I wish this was every week, lunch with him, meet me for coffee, walk his dogs. With him, at times, the sinking ship memories fall into the background, and the girl of my past can sit easy and joyful. On the last evening, my daughter and I and my brother eat pizza and watch Ted Lasso. He chews like our Dad; he crosses his legs like our Dad. I miss our Dad -- the dad who looked me in the eye and let me know I was his.
We stand outside my brother’s house, I grab him around the neck, he bends down a bit, and I hug him as long as seems normal, which isn’t long enough. I have to be cool; I have to believe we will be together again soon. I can’t think about how hard it is for me to travel, how I have no idea when we will sit in the same room again. I say a level-headed good-bye. My muscles clench all over. Sobs are right there, but I can’t, I won’t let go of myself in his driveway. Why not? What’s wrong with sobbing about your love, your fear, your need, your hope in your brother’s driveway?
I lie in bed in the fringy Airbnb, worn out, and thank the universe for my daughter, the soulful, silent witness to this trip. She is recording it all under her skin. She is an ancient wise woman.
The next morning we head south an hour and a half to Denver. The next Airbnb I’ve used before, nothing special, but no surprises at least. First stop is my oldest sister’s assisted living residence. She lived alone until just a few years ago when it got too hard. She hates the place and hates the loss of her independence. She is mentally disabled -- chromosomal luck of the draw. She has been pushing an invisible boulder up a hill her whole life. She is sophisticated about some parts of life, child-like about others. She is a complainer, anger fuels her, helps her get things done, move that rock another foot. She doesn’t deal in the social niceties. She doesn’t lie or pretend. After some hellos, she puts us to our first task. Her printer has stopped working. My daughter sits down at the computer and goes to work to solve the problem. I take in the myriad of old photos around her apartment, old pictures of me, the family, our mom. I watch my sister move about the place slowly. Her shoulders are slumped, her walk is tentative, her eye sight is not great. She’s an old farmer, bent forward over the plow, digging in, getting the job done. In her presence my brain often ricochets back and forth between my luck and her struggle. But if I’m honest I have never really felt lucky.
That night my other older sister has arranged a dinner with her husband and three adult sons. This sister, second from oldest, four years older than me, has a bit of the old farmer about her too, but she doesn't have her head down. She looks up and out and plows toward what is hopeful. I know she does it because she is keeping in check her own painful feelings, but she doesn't want to talk about them. She will listen and she will affirm my experience which over the years has become an irreplaceable gift. She has boney insides and outsides too. She's tenacious and crazy bright which can make her seem hard at times, but her cautious brown eyes give away the girl inside. The sweet, tough girl who had to grow up fast, put on 80's power suits and climb that corporate ladder in heels and learn how to smile through mountains of bullshit, while she paid the bills and longed for a safe place to land.
My sister's family and my daughter and I all gather from various parts of the city to a restaurant with a pandemic-acceptable outdoor patio. Warm greetings, drinks all around, conversation overlaps, the atmosphere is collegial, boisterous. Although I have less in common with this sister and her family, interests and Colorado living, I relish in their company. I used to fight for my place here and everywhere, my point of view. Perhaps age and time has lessened that need. I sit back and listen and let it all flow around me.
I think it was my mother I was mostly fighting with . . . in my head, for her acknowledgement, for her to witness what had happened to me when I was young. Now she’s not here. The conversations in my head have gone quiet. The next day my daughter and I go to the cemetery where her ashes are interred. I stand there staring down at the stone with her name on it for the first time. I try to feel her. I try to conjure her. But I mostly feel detached and profoundly uncomfortable. She is everywhere in me, but I can’t feel her. I decide I want to leave flowers, that is something I can do. We drive to the nearest grocery store. I pick blue hydrangeas and white lilies, and buy a large bottle of water. We drive back and I go into the cemetery office to get a plastic vase. I poke the vase into the earth, fill it with water, and arrange the flowers. They add something. I was here, Mom. Her absence overtakes me. It’s so big I can’t yet know it. I want to go back the next day to see how the flowers are doing . . . and I don’t want to know. We don’t go back.
We visit my oldest sister every day at her assisted living place, and we take her out to her favorite pancake spot for lunch. As much as she doesn’t like where she is living, she likes less the disruption of her routine, and worries about getting in and out of the rental car and me being able to fold her walker, but we manage. I hate sitting inside the restaurant, all I can think about is COVID. My anxiety always needs a place to land and it’s not that hard to find one these days. It’s my first time eating inside since the pandemic. But I am aware of the rareness of my visits and it is what she wants to do and we are all vaccinated, so I eat the pancakes.
On our last night my daughter and I sit on the back patio of my other sister’s modest house and have a meal of take out Mexican food and talk, as her old dog, Buddy, strolls back and forth and sniffs, not sure what to make of these new people. It’s as mundane as can be and as hopeful as can be. My big sister and her husband who has been in our lives since she was 16 and I was 12. I feel the heat of familial connection, like a little electric shock. In the past, when we all gathered with my mom and our stepfather there was always guardedness in the air, against my stepfather’s brutality, against our collective knowledge of what we’d been through, and a falseness as we tried put it all behind us and be in the moment. All four of us had a grave and earnest desire for an authentic, safe family. Three of us created our own. We all have long marriages and children. And we’ve done our best to include our oldest sister in that part of our lives. With our mom gone, oddly, as much as I deeply longed for her closeness, I think I may be experiencing that deeply longed for intimacy and belonging finally now in these moments with my sisters and brother. I didn’t know it, but that is what I came for.