The three part Family Matters series I’ve shared has been very powerful for me. Like many, I have struggled painfully and mightily with my relatives through every stage of life. Unlike many, after a while, at each stage I have consistently chosen separation and distance in order to preserve my life. Self-preservation has been both a blessing and curse. The instinct to cut off my arm, my foot, even my heart in order to breathe and live another day with a bit less pain has been my status quo since adolescence. But now, as I approach my middle years, after living the last fifteen years alone without family input or interaction in my daily life, it feels as if I’ve over-preserved myself. I’ve processed out the salt and flavor of life, the meat of existence, the joy of being. I’ve grown stale.
The Tug-of-War of Returning
The aunt who knows me best and had a hand in mothering me during a portion of my teen years, dropped me in my twenties. No rhyme or reason I’m aware of. She simply stopped communicating and interacting with me.
She had a very controlling stranglehold on many people. The hold she had on me was through constant reminders of how she stepped in to help my mom when no one else would. Her idea of being paid back was me owing her my life and being willing to give her whatever she wanted whenever she asked for it. Preferably before she asked for it. When I moved away at the age of thirty, my main intent was to get away from the yoke she kept trying to attach to me. My insight into my aunt’s character was very limited then. Fortunately, I see her much clearer now.
After I moved to New York City, the only time my aunt and I communicated during the first ten years of my self-exile, was surrounding the death of family members.
When my aunt became ill a couple of years ago, she began sporadically reaching out in earnest. Meaning her speech was earnest but her follow-through was not. I listen to her with a very skeptical ear, in an attempt to discern truth and need from hyperbole. Despite not being able to trust her, I do find that I would still like to have a good relationship with her. What I’m coming to terms with is that such is not possible.
My return to Arizona was not meant to be shared with relatives in the state. There was no intention of interacting with people who have no goodwill towards me. However, I am very talkative, my aunt is very nosy… and I’ve never been a deflector or a liar. She knows this. When I don’t want to answer a question, she will keep at me until my guard lowers and I overshare throughout the course of the conversation. She is also good at inserting herself without invitation. Long story short, I eventually shared my intention to move to Tucson and she began planning my life. First, she wanted to visit me in New York City before I leave for good. She wanted to join me in various endeavors when I arrive in my new home and insisted I pick her up and drop her off in Mesa (suburb of Phoenix about 1.5 hour drive away from me) so she can do so. Her suggestions exasperated me. Each time I impatiently cut her off. “I’ve been in New York for twelve years, if you haven’t visited by now, I’m not holding my breath for a visit before my final exit. I’m not driving to Phoenix on a regular to pick you up and drop you off in order to participate in an activity with me. No. No. No. Then… Okay, do you want to spend Christmas with me? In March, I’ll be in Phoenix for an event and will stop by to visit. When do you want to come to New York? I’ll see what I can do.”
Love is very simple. So is relationship. Love embodies the desire to provide and accommodate. That is the essence, the true core, of relationship. My aunt no longer manipulates me from the angle of owing her anything. She targets my loneliness by revealing her own. She tries to identify with me being on my own by claiming to be the same. In addition to being “on her own,” she’s ill, she’s dying, and unemployed. What she doesn’t like mentioning is that she has three children, several grandchildren, a brother, nieces and nephews in the same city. She claims no one’s checking on her or looking out for her. She’s not eating. She can’t go shopping. No one cares. So yeah, I finally gave in and agreed to visit her. I told her two weeks in advance when I would come.
When I called to tell her I was in Phoenix and leaving the event I had attended, she passed the phone to one of her grandsons who was visiting. She called a few minutes later, as I was heading to the highway to get across town to frantically tell me her brother and his wife also “dropped by.” I could hear her anxiety through the phone. I wasn’t prepared for a visit with her, her brother and his wife – far too much ridiculous energy in one space. I told her as much and told her I was fine staying on the highway and returning to Tucson directly. She said her visitors wouldn’t be there long and asked me to come by as I intended. By the time I arrived at her complex, I had to use the restroom, so I called and told her I would bite the bullet and deal with her brother and sister-in-law because I needed a bathroom. She calmly replied, “Can you go to McDonald’s down the street? I’ll send my grandson down to take you there.”
“I just passed McDonald’s. I can get there just fine.” This was my first visit since my grandmother, her mother, died four years prior. Yet, she refused me entry for a time in preference for her brother whom she later shared lives around the corner.
I drove to McDonald’s and ordered food while I was there. Then I drove to another location to journal. I was gone for close to two hours, during which she called three times. My internal debate was should I get back on the road and drive back home to Tucson or should I follow-through on the visit I said I would make? I suspected she had set me up. She had always tried to force me into interacting with her brothers even when I have been direct about not wanting contact. Though that wasn’t the case this time. I had already tried scheduling time with her brother. That seemed to surprise her. Against my better judgement, I completed my journal entry and went to visit my aunt. When I arrived I was surprised to see her son – who had according to him, been living with her for four years. His girlfriend shared his room with him.
The lonely aunt whom no one was checking on, literally had a full house.
My aunt has always made destructive choices. She has never chosen love for the sake of love. Not for her children, not for her husband, not for her mother. Nor for me. I have always given her the benefit of the doubt, but her actions have always been honest expressions of her priorities. She always says I’m like a daughter to her. Yet she did not drop out of contact with her children for ten years.
I view my aunt now as a gateway drug or disease. She chooses everyone and everything I don’t want in my life. Even my willingness to accommodate her for love’s sake is not a good reason to open the door of my life to her when I know she will continue to pull undesirable people and elements in.
I have nieces of my own whom I have no contact or relationship with. My brothers’ daughters have been withheld from his family since he died eleven years ago. The girls were still sweet then. And I did what I could in all my broken exiled loneliness to maintain a semblance of a relationship with their mother, thereby staying within their world. I reached out to cultivate relationships. I called, I visited, and I sent care-packages. Their mother was a party to my brother’s death. The police refused to investigate so she was never charged. She and I had a couple of conversations about what witnesses shared with me and my family. To my recollection she never denied her part. She didn’t want me connecting with her daughters and when she gave up trying to manipulate me through them, she shut down access altogether.
Several years ago, I connected with one niece on Facebook. I was quite excited to be able to see her and her sisters virtually and perhaps hear about them online. My excitement died a pitifully quick death. They were playing a short game they thought was a long con. Be borderline courteous for a couple of short emails or texts. Hit me up for money. When I refuse, tell me to go kill myself or that I’m not a real auntie because I’m not paying for the privilege. This cycle happens every few years. It’s been three years since the last time.
Last week, my middle niece texted me from an unknown number. Cue borderline courteous brief texts. She said she has a lot of questions and asked to speak to me. I suggest the following evening. When I got on the phone with her, she began with a disclaimer. “I don’t mean to come off as rude, but on the other hand, I am very angry and I just want some answers. Why are you not interested in having a relationship with your deceased brother’s children? Why don’t you ever come around or call? Why didn’t you reach out when your grandfather died? I know you were in Gary, why didn’t you stop by?”
Sometimes, people create their own alternate realities. She’s eighteen now. She was fifteen when she told me I am not her aunt because I don’t “act like” the aunt’s she acknowledge. For example, her mother’s sister is accessible and available for everything. I reminded her of this exchange. And because I know her mother used to text awful things to me then pass the phone to her so she could add her own awfulness, I offered, “Perhaps your mother had your phone when that text was sent.”
“No that was me. That’s how I felt because you’ve never been around and I don’t understand why you don’t want a relationship with me.”
This is where my heart would’ve broken if it hadn’t been targeted and trampled under-foot for so many years.
I told her, “Your mother would be better able to answer why I haven’t been around. I have never not wanted a relationship with you. However, if you’re asking if I want to work on a relationship with you where you have all these expectations about who and what I should be and how I should perform in a role, then no, I am not interested in that. But if you’re interested in getting to know me and allowing me to get to know you, then yes, absolutely. I would absolutely love to build a relationship with you.
It’s an odd thing when you can be hurt by someone, move to protect yourself from their fiery barbs and still ache because of the pain they’re experiencing. It’s not lost on me that this girl is reaching out with the same hand she’s lashing me with. Even as she’s seeking love and knowledge, she’s attempting to punish and destroy. She wants a connection, yet she keeps burning the bridge we’re meeting on. I see it. I get it. I’m just not here for it.
I’m over all this foolishness in my life.
And I’m as a self- preservationist who has never had the luxury of sharing my pain with anyone connected to the source of the pain despite having a host of pain points…. Because of my history, I am not interested in coddling, and further enabling, an abusive personality. Also because of my own seeking and longing, I will continue to re-open the door the tiniest bit as the simplest invitation I can manage.
Even if I take her at her word and dismiss her methods as learned behavior from feeding at the breast of malice and destruction, then I’m still sort of blurry as to her true intent.
Before the end of the call, she said, “It would have been nice to have had you or someone from my dad’s side of the family at my graduation.”
“It would have been nice to be invited. When was your graduation?”
“It’s this Friday.”
“Yeah, an invitation would’ve been nice. Have you decided on a college?”
“Yes, I leave in August for Atlanta.”
We talked a bit about college. I’m quite happy for her and wish her all the best in all she does. However, it was not lost on me that the timing and the purpose of her call speaks more to her expectation for a financial acknowledgement of her accomplishments than to an interest in getting to know me.
Reconciling Past, Present and Future
Both my aunt and my niece represent the current state of my familial relationships. More importantly, my aunt is solidly entrenched in the past. Everything I have worked to extricate from my life would return to roost in my home and life should she be allowed access to either. I know it. I see it. I don’t want it.
My niece also represents a future hope. She and her sisters could have filled the void of the children I never had and would have joyfully been showered with whatever was showered upon me. She also represents a future destruction as a reminder that the enemy is roaming the earth seeking people to devour. From that perspective, just being able to build and maintain a path to healthy communication would be a blessing to cherish.