Hollywood makes vacations synonymous with families. But not families like mine.
We had driven less than two hours to reach the restaurant of his choice, but the length of the trip could not be measured in miles. We were there to meet my brother and his wife. The invitation to see him after almost 50 years without communication was a wake-up call that I could not refuse. My husband came to support me, full of curiosity to meet his brother-in-law.
The road between when I last saw my brother, when he was in his early 20s and I was a teenager, and now, both of us in our 60s, was paved with silence and broken ties. My family of origin had fragmented dramatically in the 1960s. Our mother left the family when I was 12 after a series of violent fights with our father. For the next six years, every other member of my family would leave. By my senior year in high school, I was living alone in what had been the family home.
I entered the restaurant having operated as an only child for almost 50 years. As the coffee in our cups cooled, it was clear to me that that wouldn’t change after we parted ways.
As the youngest in my family of five, I looked up to my older brother the way little sisters often do. But there was a despair beneath my love. He was the firstborn and the favorite son. Our middle brother was rebellious from a young age and someone he couldn’t trust. I expected my older brother to protect me. But he left shortly after my mother to serve in the Army during the Vietnam War. She never came home, she didn’t even reply to the email I sent her. She missed him so much that I kept writing him weekly letters, until they came back “address unknown”. A few years later, my middle brother would also be gone without a trace.
For five decades, I would be denied the traditional family gathering that so commonly defines Thanksgiving through New Years. The holiday season sells a lot, but at its core the message is to come together as a family. Books, movies, and the theater are filled with the theme of welcoming the prodigal relative home.
But not all families follow this script. Mine certainly wasn’t represented on the Hallmark Channel. As I approached a very different reunion of my own, I wondered if it would evoke even a little of the warmth and reconciliation that coming together again over long distances is supposed to entail.
When I entered the restaurant, I was filled with joyful anger. Questions swirled through my head as I tried to prioritize what I wanted to learn that day. I wrestled with the possibility that instead of getting answers, I was doing something foolish, and once again, my desire for communication and closeness would be rejected.
My hope was in the fact that my brother had started the meeting. After he found out that our mother had passed away by receiving a copy of her will from her lawyer, thanks to an address of hers that I was able to locate, he wrote me a letter offering to meet. Thirty years earlier, when our father died, he refused to meet with me and limited his actions to signing the necessary paperwork. Perhaps the finality of our parents leaving allowed him to feel safe seeing his little sister again.
I entered the restaurant with my husband by my side. We had established a code that he could use if he needed me to leave at any time: he would give his knee a squeeze. Knowing that I could get out allowed me to get in. And there was my brother, with enough vestiges of the young man I’d last seen that I recognized him at a glance. His blue eyes were lighter than mine and his hair was still naturally blonde, unlike mine.
The four of us ordered coffee at the counter and took our cups to a booth. I didn’t trust my stomach enough to ask for food. I found myself looking at his hands. They were so familiar. These were the hands that had built a wooden cradle for my doll when she was 10 years old, the cradle in which I later laid each of my three young children.
Over the next two hours I learned how tough her childhood had been, tougher than I thought. I thought his favorite son status spared him the demeaning and demeaning criticism I was subjected to, but in reality the expectations for him as a firstborn were even stricter. “When I was about 8 years old, I came home from a Cub Scout meeting half an hour late to find the door locked. Our parents were inside watching as I tried to open all the doors. I understood the lesson they were trying to teach me, but that was not the lesson I was learning.” It was then that he began to dream of how he could leave home.
He added: “Our parents should never have had children, and I can’t imagine having my own.” I watched the energy drain from her face as she clasped her hands together and allowed herself to recapture these dark and painful memories. He asked me, “Have you ever been suicidal?” We both nodded affirmatively at the same time.
When I got up the courage to ask why leaving the family meant having to leave me too, he said, “I was hoping I was giving you a role model. To save yourself. I couldn’t save you, but I hoped you could save yourself.”
As her memories unfolded, my mind scrambled to absorb the new information. As an adult, my mother accused me of exaggerating how horrible my childhood had been. Hearing him speak out loud about what he had experienced confirmed that he was not wrong. This was such a powerful gift that I ordered myself to memorize the moment.
Acting as our helpers-de-camp, our spouses began asking their own questions, bringing us back to the present. Talking about retirement and travel plans reminded my brother and I of the lives we had each created from the detritus of our early years. But he never expressed interest in meeting my children, his nephews, he never even asked about them. And he never asked me about my experience taking care of our parents on my own, further underscoring that they were dead to him the day he left home.
I entered the restaurant having operated as an only child for almost 50 years. As the coffee in our cups cooled, it was clear to me that that wouldn’t change after we parted ways. As we got up from the booth and headed for the exit, I found myself not wanting to ask for more.
It’s not always possible to find love in this world, and the loneliness of a divided family is deeply isolating.
This was not a Hollywood family reunion, but I felt that his validation of my perspective would lessen my inner demons. And while as a psychologist I strongly believe in the importance of relationships in building mental health, I know there are times when it’s too far a bridge for people to stay connected. The pain of that reality can only lessen with acceptance rather than reconciliation.
Outside the restaurant, my brother held out his hand for me to shake. He knew this was all he could give, and he was at peace with it. My husband’s grip was the one that mattered. Reaching for his hand under the table at difficult moments had reminded me that his was the love that was strong enough to hold me.
And it is my husband and our children with whom I will once again spend this Christmas season: my created family, not my family of origin. It’s not always possible to find love in this world, and the loneliness of a divided family is deeply isolating. Perhaps, one day, that isolation can be eased a bit by including our stories in the holiday canon.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255text HOME to 741741 or visit TalkingSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.