When a Family Fractures

It's remarkable what happens in a family when a mother dies, especially one who was its glue.. All the weaknesses in relationships, all the little cracks that were patched up over the decades, can suddenly shatter into a million pieces when that singular woman is no longer there anymore as the central magnet drawing everyone together.


"The Gathering," 9" x 12", mixed media on paper, 2019. (Journal entry)

In my own family, my mother was the superglue for sure. And since she died last year, I've watched my relationship with my sister slowly dissolve into something I no longer recognize. The fallout is that I no longer see her, her husband or her two dear daughters at all anymore, and the loss is enormous. There are no more sleepovers with the girls, no more family dinners, no more invites to graduations and the like. Not only did my mom suddenly disappear, leaving me devastated, but so did the rest of my family. It's been a dark and bizarre time for sure.


When my mom died, my dad, who already had been weak and ill, with dementia setting in, took to his bed and has never walked again. He remains in that bed until now, waiting patiently for death to take him. And my sister...well, I'm not entirely sure what went wrong with her, but it was as if every bad feeling she'd ever had about me suddenly came into sharp focus, and a curious rage has since set in, ironically reminding me so much of the behavior of my dad, which seriously injured us both..


Unlike me, my sister never went for help to tend to the wounds that my father inflicted upon her, and so she coped in other ways, not all entirely healthy. Yet she has molded a life for herself that is indeed a beautiful thing, as she has a happy marriage, a job she loves, financial stability, and two brilliant and healthy girls who are just entering their teens.


Yet my sister carries around with her a curious type of malaise that is almost a tangible thing. In the years leading up to my mom's death, I could see she had a conflicted relationship with me, yet at the same time she asked me to be her maid of honor at her wedding, then godmother to her first born.


But she has always kept her distance from me, and while I could frequently feel disappointed and frustrated, I somehow understood it. My sister is 16 years younger than me, which for her has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she had a big sister to help her navigate the minefield of my dad's craziness in her formative years (something I wish I'd had), yet on the other, she struggled to find her identity in the shadow of a sister who had many similar talents to her, but who had arrived nearly a generation earlier and thus was achieving success during the very same years she was trying to define herself.


She will never admit to it, but I know what I saw. She had striking musical talent, artistic talent, and an outrageous wit that clearly set her apart. But for reasons known only to her, she never pursued any of these gifts, and instead tried athletics, which one could see she wasn't truly interested in. But. I can even remember her saying to others back then that I was the artist of the family, but she was the athlete. And I felt for her, as I could see she was struggling.


Yet she's ended up in a place that I know she's proud of, and all is well, except when it comes to me. It's as though I've been erased, and it's a hard thing to forgive. In fact, a number of things happened in the wake of my mom's death that are hard to forgive, but while I'm willing to just move on, my sister clearly is not. She has sunk her feet into an entrenched place of rage and blame, and our relationship has come to a full stop.


My mom would be horrified at all this, of course, and I think she even had a premonition about it, as she would sometimes ask me to please stay close to my sister after she passed. I would always assure her I would, yet even I had an uneasy feeling about a future with my only siibling without my mother in it.


Quick image in illustrated journal, 2019.

My mom and I had many conversations, about this and about everything else under the sun, as we had an incredibly close relationship, particularly during the last twenty years of her life, which started with her hysterectomy and just before my own illness set in in a serious way. When I cared for her in that first surgery, what struck me was the incredible sense of honor I felt in taking care of a woman I loved so much. And so for the next two decades, I cared for her in any way she needed. As I had no life partner and because disability later gave me the time, I was able to grow closer to her in ways I didn't see coming. She became my best friend and a soulmate, and it was pure joy to be with her.


My sister was very good at caring for my parents, too, particularly with their finances, but she didn't have the time I did as she was raising a family, which she always openly shared with me. Still, there was an ease to our division of duties in caring for our aging parents. But then...well, my mom died. And it seemed almost right away my sister began to panic, as if all the time I'd been spending with my mom was now going to transfer to her family. And slowly, more and more rage began to surface, more exclusion, which would then enrage me as there were never any answers for it. The only thing I seem to have received is angry phone calls that can feel like a drive-by of criticisms, which I'm sure in her mind is justification for shutting me out.


In a recent call, she said she feared that I would say bad things about her to her girls as a reason for keeping them away from me. But I think the truth is that she's simply afraid of me and the girls becoming closer as they enter their teen years. That often happens with an aunt, the woman who is the adult in a teen's life but who is not an authority figure and therefore a safe repository for questions and secrets..


Oddly, I understand my sister's pullback on sharing her girls perhaps more than she thinks I do. When she was very young, a close friend of mine began going to my parents' home, without my knowledge, to take my baby sister out on play dates. I was so wildly furious at this overstepping, and so guarded of my role as big sister with that darling little girl that i actually ended the friendship. So it's not like I don't understand these things in all their complexities.


But unfortunately, where this leaves me now is in a terrible state of loss. It's as if my entire family vanished in front of my eyes, and I'm left to rebuild in the wake.


I'm currently nursing a hip injury, and so am forced to keep still as much as possible. That led to a nap this afternoon, in which I dreamed that I visited my sister and her family and we were all happy again.


I've no idea how things will play out. And one thing I know for sure is that there's absolutely nothing I can do about any of this. I still ask to see my nieces, but it never works out, and so I suspect I will just have to wait until they're older to rekindle the joys of the auntie-niece relationship. It's heartbreaking, but that's how life goes. Things end, they begin, they change, they hurt, they hope, they try, and they let go.


I'm letting go now, as the new enters my life in unexpected and often sparkling ways. But I miss everyone in my family just so, so much.



#family #breakdown #siblings #sisterrelationship #sisters #deathofmother #agingparents #mother


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 ©2020, Mary Ann Farley