Friday, August 14, 2009

Family Death

My Mom’s oldest sister, Shirley, died last week.

I have never had any real connection to my extended family. Beyond my own Mother and Father, I only know my aunts and uncles and cousins from a distance, like familiar acquaintances who smile and make small talk over dinner every few years.

When I was still in First Grade my parents moved away from their own families in Tennessee and set their eyes towards South Texas. This is where I grew up. This is where my identity was shaped and my character was formed. I’ve actually thanked God for taking my family out of the environment I had been born into and transplanting me into a more modern world where race wasn’t an indicator of value and fear wasn’t a commodity.

Most of my childhood friends and several of my cousins who remained behind and grew up in that place are very different from me. I do believe that had I remained in the small Tennessee town where I was born I would have had a radically different life. I’m thankful to have left and to have had the life I’ve had so far.

Still, last night, laying with my head on the pillow, in the glow of an almost-full moon, I couldn’t help but wonder about the extensive family I left behind in Tennessee. They are the family I will never belong to. They are the flesh and blood that will never know me, and I will never know them—not as well as they know one another.

My parents were the city folk who left town and never looked back. We were the ones who would come back once ever few years for summer vacation or occasional family reunions, but as such we were visitors, tourists, in a place each of them called “home” and I knew only as a touchstone of childhood.

Today, as I consider the death of my Mother’s oldest sister, I am nursing an un-named ache deep within my chest. I have lost something I cannot name, but the more I contemplate this loss the more I know for certain that this loss is forever buried under an avalanche of years that I can never unearth or resurrect.

I am mourning the loss of a family that I was never fully embraced into to begin with. My yearning is for a place of acceptance among a people with whom I share a lineage and a legacy, but nothing more. We have no shared life, no shared memories, no deep connections beyond memories held like dreams in old photographs yellowed and fading in the sunlight.

Can I confess that I regret never growing old with those people? Can I admit that I wish with all my heart that I could have belonged to those people and that they could have known me and loved me as deeply as I now long to be loved and known?

My family, beyond my own parents, are like strangers to me. They do not know me. They have less awareness of me than the hundreds of Facebook friends who read my articles and respond to my status updates or make comments on my blog.

I am saddened to realize that these people will, one by one, all pass away from this life and remain strangers to me. My children will grow old and get married and have children and none of them will ever know or care. I will breathe my own last breath one day, and none of them will travel the hundreds of miles necessary to stand at my graveside or lay a comforting hand on the shoulders of my wife or children. This is my family. This is the tribe I will never know. This is the lost side of my soul that I can never excavate or replace.

Until today I didn’t realize just how much I needed them. Until today I didn’t know how much this missing piece of me mattered. But now I do. I realize these things too late. I understand the power of family when it’s of no use to me.

So, today as I say goodbye to Shirley Ferrell Wyatt, I mourn the family that I never knew. I pray for her son and her daughter who remain in my memory as elementary-aged children running barefoot on the Tennessee grass. I pray for the sisters who grieve their loss. I pray for the cousins who let go of their dear Aunt. I ask God to comfort them in their sadness, and I am grateful that they have one another to shoulder the burden during this time of regret. For that I am thankful. For that I give thanks.


1 comment:

Andy Kagle said...

I think I understand. I too am severed from my extended family, but much less than you. I'm 21 years old, so I have time to build relationships with my extended family, but they're all a few hundred miles away.

I visit now and then, and I can always call or write a letter. I would love to draft some of my "friends" onto my "family" team. But that takes time, and can never replace a blood family that was with you as you were growing up.

And even if I can't have grown up with a large, loving family, I can try to build relationships now so that my children will have more "family" than I did growing up. Maybe then they will have more reason to stay close to home when they start families of their own instead of moving hundreds of miles away.

Thank you for posting this. Fred Rogers had a saying, "That which is the most personal is the most universal." I read all your stuff, but this means more to me than most.