My family tree is not tall nor strong, but gnarly, with roots that weave, bend and hide. There are blank pages and missing words in my heritage. And now, there is no one left to fill in the gaps or unearth the secrets.
I learned last night that my uncle, my mom’s brother, died back in January. I never knew him. Yet, I felt oddly stricken at hearing he was dead.
They’re all gone.
I never met my grandmother. I believe I was around the age of four when she died. All I really know about her is that she had her first child, my mom, at the age of 14, and she was a respiratory therapist that died of lung cancer in her 40’s.
Only a few years after that, her youngest son committed suicide. A son, brother, uncle, husband and father to four young children. He was 35. The same age as his youngest daughter is now.
Fast forward to 1995. I’m 14 years old. After a young lifetime of day dreaming what it would be like to have a mom that didn’t disappear– a “normal” mom, I got to live with my mother for the first time since I was two. She was finally of sound mind and heart. But her story began to lie too heavy on her chest. She died of lung cancer a year and a half later. She was 46.
I was 17 when my grandfather died. I arrived in Florida after his funeral. I have a bullet shell from the 3-volley salute he was honored with at his funeral. Other than him being in the navy, being an avid outdoorsman and a talented saxophone player, I know nothing about him. He was 67 when he died.
And now, the last son and only remaining member of that family of five is gone. He was 62. He had no family near him. No one knew where he was. Nor did any one go looking. From what I know, he was often times delusional and only reached out when he needed money. Last anyone heard from him, he claimed he was working for NASA.
Dissolution of the chase.
My uncle’s death has hit me hard. Not because I was ever emotionally attached to him, but because he was the last one. I don’t believe he could have ever filled the hundreds of missing pages from this family’s story, but knowing there is no longer a living connection to them–it’s sad. It hurts. There was so much pain wrapped up in the short time they all got to live. Alcoholism, physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse, and eventually failing hearts and bodies.
Our identity is more that who and where we come from, but it’s a part of it none-the-less. The lack of connection I have to either side of my family, especially the maternal side, causes me a lot of grief. I’ve tried to put pieces together for years, in hopes of “solving” the mystery. In hopes of understanding where the pain originated, why it manifested it’s ugly face with abuse, broken lives, mental illness, aching souls and young deaths.
Our fate is not bound by the legacy of our families, but a level of understanding who they are and what contributed to the choices they made, offers a degree of insight I’ve craved most my life. My uncle’s death sent my wheels spinning yet again, with this mission at the forefront of my brain. I feel, at times, addicted to the chase. As if some day, I’m going to stumble upon a record or piece of information that is going to make it all make sense.
I’m starting to learn that my pursuit for a linear family picture, is just a way to avoid processing the grief I carry. The particulars don’t matter. I’m probably better off not knowing anymore details than the few I have learned. The option to connect the dots, is not really an option at all. The story is as broken as the people within it, and I need to accept that. That is difficult to come to terms with, but necessary.
Change of shift.
I think my determination to investigate my family has always been fueled with love, fear and sadness. Love for a family I crave, fear of becoming like the family I am a part of and sadness that their story can’t be told. I don’t know that my curiosity will ever dissipate, but my focus is shifting.
The shift is in how I view my family–that gnarly tree with roots that bend, weave and hide. I’m coming closer to an understanding that I don’t need to prove anything, or make excuses for their choices with explanations. Searching for reason will not change history or prevent history from repeating itself, nor will it avoid predisposed genes from running wild. Only I, and the other children of this broken family can do that. We can both honor our family and grieve them by turning the focus to the roots we are responsible for lying down.
It’s time for me to accept the pieces I know, honor the few stories that can be told and allow my grief to help me move forward.