"three sisters" from albuquerque botanical gardens, february 2010
I rush through the last of the first chapter of John Thorndike's The Last of His Mind, his memoir about his father's experience with Alzheimer's and John's time caring for him, and hurry out the door of the coffee shop to come home to my laptop and write. The feeling is intense - joyful and piercing - that I want to write so much about how mixed pure pain is - not anxiety, not suffering - but the pure stuff, like heartache.
Where did this come from? Partway through reading the chapter, a coffeehouse buddy asked me what I was reading when I took a break to take a deep breath, looking up for the first time in a dozen pages. She asked about if my family had Alzheimer's in it, mentioning that her family doesn't, her mom is still doing fine in her mid-80's. "Nope. My family just dies young," which is only partially true, but enough partial to be pretty alarming. "50/60's of heart disease or related, then 80's of what's called natural causes but is more like heartache." She nods. "Your family has unraveling DNA." Yes, I nod. That sounds right.
I take the break to go check on various online things - email, Facebook, texts, messages, and there find a response from my one, currently official (though there's one other unofficial and one about to become official this October) sister-in-law. She agrees with me that sleeping in, which was what my post was about, is great, then says that she and I should go and get a late breakfast sometime next week, when others are at work and she and I are free because of our odd schedules. Somehow going from the isolation of caring for one's father who is isolated from himself with Alzheimer's to such easy conviviality made my heartache. I made the date, then set back to reading.
Throughout the rest of the chapter, though, my previous experience of a sister-in-law haunted me. Nora is my sister-in-law through me marrying her brother, Dylan; this other sister-in-law (now divorced) was the wife of my brother David. Nothing about my relationship with my first sister-in-law was ever easy, and that is not an overexaggeration. We struggled with ourselves at the time, trying to find autonomy in situations of great suffering and pain, both, and also with each other. There was great healing to be found in all of it, on both sides, but also a lot of pain, and a lot of damage. As soon as I had reason to distance myself, I did, and stayed away from relating to her, but not after a few years of very difficult, heart-breaking strained intimacy. I read about how Thorndike feels closer to his father now that his father has lost so much of his order, formality, and has become vulnerable, and I wonder what it takes for some situations to work - because relating to Nora is so easy, so straight-forward (as is to my two other "sister-outlaws" as I call them, Melissa and Patty). It doesn't feel like work at all, even when there is work to do. And that first relationship with a sister-in-law I don't think ever didn't feel like work.
My heart aches for that kind of difference, for how family simply refuses to be constructed, or can be constructed but also encapsulate suffering alongside joy. The gratitude bursts out of me in waves, and when it ebbs, sadness flows freely. The joy and heartache intermingle and the words beg to burst out onto the page. So here they are, and here I am, and here all of these sisters tossed together are. Let us find the joy in the heartache, not eliminate the heartache - the piercing is a reward far greater than constant smiles.