What if it was Different?
What if my Mom hadn't died?
What if my Dad was still here?
By the time I was 19 both my parents were dead. Mom when I was nine of a heart attack, and dad of cancer that had been diagnosed just before my 18th birthday. He made it through my high school graduation and one more Christmas, but died while I was home that winter from college.
I've spent a good deal of time blaming their absence for the dissolution of the family I grew up in. As the youngest of eleven children, I think I expected to always be surrounded by brothers and sisters, nephews and neices. That's not the case. I am close with one brother who has no children. The rest of my siblings are dead, estranged, or too far apart in age from me to feel like we have common ground.
Most of my brothers and sisters had children long before I did, so the cousin connection didn't pan out either. My sons' nearest cousin in age was at least 8 years older, not exactly a playmate.
I've said to Chris, my partner in life, many times, that I think if Mom and Dad had lived into old age that my family would have been drawn together. Perhaps we'd have gathered or at least crossed paths at my parent's home on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Maybe all the children would have worked together to celebrate our parent's wedding anniversaries. I have visions sometimes in my head of this: Full rooms of conversations and celebrations. My knowing not just the vagueties of each other's lives, but knowing that Sally the high school senior got a 1250 on her SAT and that my brother and his wife were still dealing with the tree that fell on their house in the storm last week. I suspect that I would know and be enmeshed in the lives of my parents and brothers and sisters. I imagine being surrounded by love.
I think what Chris was asking was that what if my parent's living didn't pan out in this idyllic way I've always imagined? I've always considered losing my parents as a tremendous loss that shaped my life. I still insist that's true.
What if the way it shaped my life actually brought more good than bad?
I do not think I will ever stop wishing that I had a close relationship with my sisters and brothers and was well connected to their kids. I'm 100% certain that if my parents could meet my sons and they could know each other that a place within me would be filled with the finest white sand; warm and exquisitely filling nooks and crannies in my soul that sit unreached.
That said, what if part of the blessing my sons are is because I lost my parents? What if the strength I acquired from being parent-less at 18, working multiple jobs, and finishing college and grad school was a power I wouldn't have obtained if my parents were here to catch me? The acquired determination lent itself well to taking care of three young boys.
What if losing my own mother made me a better mother? I know it's made me healthier. I had my cholesterol checked at the age of 18 and it was borderline high. Since I knew high cholesterol often lead to heart disease, and I knew my mom had died of heart disease, I altered my habits. I throttled back the fried foods and I started to run for exercise. When my sons came along I continued to run, determined both to be able to keep up with them and to be around for them much longer than my mother was able to be for me. I want to know my grandkids.
Running has shaped my life. It's part of my definition of myself. If mom lived would I have started running? Though there are days it's horrible to consider walking out the door to do a couple of miles, my best friendships and connections have come from the sport. I wouldn't be who I am without it.
I was involved in my son's lives. I knew moment to moment how the boys were growing and developing, who their friends were, and what field their next soccer game was on. I wonder if my mom had always been around if I would have valued her presence? Whether the kids valued mine or not wasn't the question in those years, it was the knowing that I was going to take full advantage of being able to watch the boys grow up. Perhaps if I had taken my mere attendance in their lives for granted they would have missed out on being shaped by my personality and attributes. We can all acknowledge that our kids absorb more by our proximity to them than by our preaching at them.
If my Dad had stuck around I might have continued to think that his short fuse and temper were simply family traits that I was born to bear. The man was a gift, but he was also tempermental and his mood when he returned home from work set the tone for the household. What if continuing to witness and be so close to that meant my never examining my own issues with anger and testiness? I did examine that and work on it. Those traits didn't fit with who I wanted to be or what I thought was the best version of myself, so while they at times come to the surface, they certainly don't define me the same way they characterized my father.
Losing both my parents when I was young was tragic and sad. Believing that my life would have been nothing but better had they not died, however, is magical thinking. Stephen Colbert had a great discussion with Anderson Cooper about grief and gratitude. Colbert said in order to truly live a life of gratitude, one has to be grateful for all the things that happened in their life. This was no small feat for Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10 years old.
I think what Colbert was saying was in line with what Chris was pointing out to me: that every thing that happens in our lives shapes who we become and who we are, and that the darkest and most tragic among them can lead us to the best version of ourself.