[Author’s note: I’ve lived through the sadness of a family separated by death, and a family joined by it. This post covers a bit of both.]
I remember the day these pictures were taken as one of the worst of my life.
In retrospect and compared to other bad days in the 30+ years since, it really wasn’t terrible at all, but compared to my expectations of life at the time, it was total bullshit.
This entire head to toe getup (the patent leather shoes and wool knee socks which never appeared in any picture deserve a separate post all their own…) were made of 1980’s polyester, not today’s modern fabric – it was hot, itchy, heavy, synthetic, and felt more appropriate for the front lines of a war versus formal apparel…for a four year old. I can’t be sure but that outfit may have weighed more than I did at the time. The flouncy pirate shirt was buttoned all the way up to my Adam’s apple and the bowtie was hand-tied by my mother who I’m not entirely sure wasn’t trying to cut off some oxygen to induce an early nap. I hated this tuxedo and I think even a small part of me knew back then that as a future gay man I would never in a million years wear this shit.
And just so no one misses the broader point here, who puts their kid in a tuxedo for childhood pictures at the age of 4? I’m quite sure I’ve never seen another example of this anywhere outside the Whitehouse.
Was I expected to be found in a tuxedo when company dropped by, gazing longingly out of my window contemplating thoughts so beyond my age? It’s ridiculous. And funny. I look like a Kennedy without Kennebunkport, a Bush without the oil, Prince William without Kate.
And I love this photo! And, damn, my hair is still as great today as it was when I was a kid.
That window I’m staring out of? It was a muslin screen with a photographer’s light behind it to simulate the glowing daylight I clearly long for…probably because based on the picture, I’m stuck indoors in my polyester tuxedo. It was one of probably 30 such backdrops I remember shooting pictures in front of – each time having to pretend as though I was actually in that environment…folding my hands this way, leaning that way, and fuck my life, wearing that damn tuxedo.
I don’t have much interest in playing pretend anymore.
This photo was a carefully concocted simulation of a reality that looked nothing like the attic photo studio I was in or indeed the life I was living at the time.
It got me thinking about this photo of my father, which was used for his obituary when he died. As I looked at it tonight, I thought, “my god, he looks old” as I suppose everyone does in their obituary.
What was he thinking when he took that picture – surely not just ‘smile for the camera.’ What crossed his mind that day?
I thought of words I wrote along side this picture for his obituary, then the eulogy I gave and the many words and reflections which have happened since. Much of the days, weeks and months even since he died are a blur and one of the ways I coped with it was by trying to bring order to the frenzy of activities that occur after a person dies.
I commanded my family stay organized about the business of settling my father’s life and angrily demanded their compliance. “You don’t know how to use the cloud? Figure it out!” “Having problems writing in bullet points? Get a clue!”
I was reminded of this today as my friend’s father passed away. I tried to offer the best of what I learned from my own mistakes and some tools I developed during that time.
I’m confidant my father never thought this picture would memorialize his death. My father never planned for the worst – he assumed his invincibility. He did an okay job of ensuring his financial solvency, covering his life expectancy but not much more.
So now, we, the children, are the owners of a house that we never liked or wanted to visit because it was so damn far away and yellow…and ornate. And far away. (Please feel free to make an offer.)
Despite many years of available planning time – time most do not have if tragedy strikes – my family did a poor job of planning for the inevitable. We had a sense of the best and worst case, but nothing beyond that.
We never ironed out the mechanics, the roles and responsibilities, how we would communicate, and perhaps most importantly, what our shared objectives were as we closed the books on the story of a life that was not our own yet all our responsibility.
In the case of my father, my sisters, brother-in-law, and my mother have come through this solid and even advancing our relationships because of it.
Attempting a conversation when people are alive about a time when they won’t be is uncomfortable at best – most certainly, the type you have after the kids have gone to bed. First, you must accept openly and acknowledge the reality of a future no one wants. Second, you must have difficult conversations about what that actually means, which can unearth family relationship challenges, parental preferences, or dismantle assumed family roles.
Not having these conversations means ignoring the inevitable truth of human life, the complexity of the ways we interact with the world around us, and the emotional and more complicated relationships which exist within our families.
The inevitable is the inevitable. Denying this just means delaying and amplifying the discomfort, chaos, and difficult conversations, placing it all squarely upon the shoulders of those left behind and in the worst cases, this generates conflict in the family that sometimes cannot be overcome.
A solid life plan, in my opinion, doesn’t just have financial security and an executor, a will and power of attorney. Those are helpful legal documents which really resolve themselves and are well orchestrated in their execution.
How will you and your family stay organized? How will you communicate? What do the days weeks and months look like after? How will you know who is doing what and when everyone has a vested interest in the outcomes, how will you communicate the status of things going on? In a collaborative situation where you have a single executor but many who care, how will you make decisions? How will you share, store, and secure documents that matter?
How will you utilize this once in a life time event to create an anthology of their life — in photos, in written memories, in emails that matter?
If this is the last tie that binds you, what becomes of your family?
So many of the answers to these questions can be sorted via thoughtful conversation prior to any pressure exists to do so. Doing so means you can grieve when you are meant to grieve, connect with your loved ones during one of the few times beyond weddings where you’ll be brought together as adults. You can feel comforted that you’ve addressed potential pitfalls and disagreements which might cause a family to literally break apart, as my broader family did.
My extended family was torn apart due to complete lack of such thoughtful preparation, clarity in communication, and arbitration by those whose lives would be left in the hands of others to settle. The picture above, which I don’t even recall, shows my aunt, my uncle, my grandmother, my eldest sister, my niece, and me…in some chain restaurant (Cheesecake factory from the looks of the menu). I can’t even recall this moment and I can’t imagine a moment like it occurring again with those still alive.
My uncle won’t speak to my aunt and vice versa. My father until his dying day was resistant to contact with my aunt. I spent many many tearful nights on the phone begging my aunt to just reach out, and have done the same with my uncle since. I tried to melt my father’s heart about the matter and I know prior to his death my aunt and my father spoke. Thankfully, the grand children have mostly risen above all of this bullshit. My aunt wrote me one of the most beautiful cards I’ve ever received in my life and I’ll never forget her call after my father passed telling me that she had just written him a card – perhaps a start to mending fences. My father didn’t live to receive that card. I love my uncle. I love my father. I love my aunt who in my opinion has shown the greatest willingness to move forward and I believe inside her has the truest intent and love. I don’t know of the actions that led to this rift, but I can speak to the outcomes of whatever absolution has occurred since.
How can I be so in love when those I’m in love can’t remember their love for each other?
I don’t know who was right or who was wrong, or what the hell the whole family war is about, but what I do know is this – spending time focused on the disagreement and wrongs in the past instead of loving and understanding your family is time spent not tapping in to the greatest source of acceptance and love possible other than God…your family.
My greatest prayer is that my aunt and uncle realize that before they don’t have time left. And that another great gift received in a life of faith – forgiveness – becomes a greater cure in my life and in others.
The profound impact of reconciling differences and moving forward is something I’ve only recently understood; I’ve resisted for years taking the necessary to forgive and move forward in certain relationships in my life, specifically and most importantly with my eldest sister and mother.
I’ve started to change that. This required me to acknowledge my role in the divide between us, which in retrospect had a helluva more to do with how I was responding versus what was intended or the motivations I assumed existed. It made saying the words, “I love you, I’m sorry, and I want us to be friends again” effortless, easy to hear, and completely reciprocal. When I did so, it felt like a weight I had carried for a long time started to become lighter and each day since I’ve felt the same.
Loss of a loved one is terrible and learning to accept and even embrace it is harrowing at times. It’s never easy, never what one expects, and undoubtedly is one of the most stressful times faced as we navigate our already precariously balanced lives.
We owe it to ourselves and those we love to be planful about the inevitable nature of our lives, to have the tough conversations earlier so time and energy is left for when it is really needed…when we must actually accept the loss of a loved one and embrace their life in heaven.