Primal : The Four of Us

November, 2013

I could never forget the day we took this photo. Thanksgiving, November 28th, 2013, just over two weeks after receiving the dreadful news that not only had Michael’s remission ended, but that without treatment, he had 2-3 months to live, and with treatment, maybe a year. We weren’t sure we could get through what was traditionally our favorite holiday. Ultimately, we decided that the opportunity to gather our family one more time before we disappeared into the uncertainty of chemo world was worth the effort. I still have no idea how I prepared all that food which was remarkably delicious. I guess muscle memory is real. Although lots of crying punctuated that day, the normalcy of sharing our holiday with family and close friends allowed for plenty of laughs and singing. We were lucky enough to have three more Thanksgivings as a family, with Michael miraculously outliving his dire prognosis.

I’m not one of those people who glosses over the past or pretends that my life was like one of those holiday letters which reports all the great trips and events that happened in the previous year. When I receive one of those I always wonder about the unmentioned parts, the ones that no one wants to tell any outsiders. Is it really possible to constantly have only a non-stop upside of life? In my experience, the complexity of living in groups, whether the people are related or not, always entails conflicts, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and disappointments. Thankfully, those hard parts can be offset by the positive emotions and events which form the glue that bonds individuals into their version of a family unit. In this most reflective time in my life, I’ve been pondering how my family unit got to be the tight-knit intimate crew it is, even with Michael having been absent for almost five years. Because for me, despite my kids’ partners and the fact that I have grandchildren, what will always feel primal, essential, is still the four of us.

Michael and me, about 50 years ago and

Almost 50 years ago, in April, 1972, I moved in with Michael, after almost 8 months of being instantaneous best friends. We both knew that we had some magic between us. Flipping from friendship into lovers and partners was scary but we both knew whatever had happened between us didn’t come along every day. We were so young, just 20 and 22 years old. During our first four years together we plowed through the process of learning each other in the practical ways that are the underpinnings of daily life. Dazzle aside, the key to a successful long term relationship is whether the mundane is manageable. The power of our connection never disappeared but sometimes when we annoyed each other. We needed tools to address our issues and after we developed those, we got married. Neither one of us ever wanted to fall away from the other. A few years later, we started trying to get pregnant. That took longer than we expected. Michael was anxious to have a family, hoping he could build a more successful one than his original one. Initially I wasn’t as eager as he was but as time passed and we weren’t successful, I eventually went all in, hoping we’d get lucky. And we did, welcoming our daughter in August, 1981. We were so ready to share our life with this new baby. We’d had plenty of time being just us so there was little frustration about no longer being able to have the universe revolve around our needs. Our staggering love for this kid was unquestionably enhanced by the depth of the feelings we shared as partners. The two of us were besotted.

Of course we experienced all the expected difficulties incumbent on working parents in those early years. Childhood illnesses, adjusting to day care, learning to understand who our kid was and what her needs were, along with discovering who we were as parents – all that happened in our life. I guess the operative word is “expected.” We were lucky to have most of our family issues confined to a normal range. Michael and I were both pretty opinionated and known for scrapping with each other, but fundamentally, we agreed on the key issues which can become problematic as people adapt to parenting. The good news was that we really liked each other and our kid. We put family at the center of our daily life while making sure we made time to continue nurturing us. We hoped to add a sibling to this picture when our daughter was approaching age three, but that effort took longer than we’d hoped. Our son was born when she was a few months past age five. He was a remarkably sweet baby but that fact had little impact on our feisty five year old, used to being the center of the universe.

Our daughter wasn’t thrilled to give up one shred of center stage to her brother. Michael and I marveled at how much attention little people needed, especially as both of us grew up feeling we each could have used more within our own families of origin. We worked hard to be balanced about providing enough recognition for each of the kids, while simultaneously teaching them about realistic expectations, sharing and the importance of support and loyalty to each other. For the most part, kids are fundamentally me-focused. But we figured we’d hammer away at our values while they were young enough to be influenced more by us than their peers and the bigger world. Both of us felt like the early years were opportunities for us to press our values, easier to manage while we were still the key figures in their lives.

My daughter hates this photo – her brother was vociferously arguing that “I was here first, pronounced “fust,” which had little if any effect. A moment frozen in time.

Reporting that all our grandiose ideas were easily digested by the kids and that our life was idyllic would be nice. However, we were living in the real world which meant that every day had the potential for introducing complications and challenges for all of us. I’d say that generally speaking, we had an easy go as parents. Our kids were healthy and bright, funny and kind. Their sibling rivalry wasn’t as intense as it might have been because of their age gap. They liked us, which was nice, but that didn’t ensure that they were always angelic. They argued and jostled for attention. Their rooms were messy and they needed constant prodding to do their chores. They could be selfish and insensitive to each other and to us. Michael was impatient and hot-tempered. Miraculously, he was never physically aggressive, just loud. My patience usually lasted longer before all the refereeing wore me down. I sometimes felt that I shouldn’t have bothered to plan fun outings when the constant bickering spoiled my time off and reduced me to tears, an interesting situation as I was never a big crier. Parenting brings out new aspects in your personality, at least the one you thought you had before making children. But, despite the hassles we persevered. As the kids grew, they couldn’t have been more different in terms of their personal styles, but they shared similar interests. When they weren’t being annoying, you could tell that they felt affection for each other. When our four year old son missed Halloween because he had pneumonia, our nine year old daughter collected treats for him. When he was seven and weeping with empathy at the plight of The Elephant Man, she was the big, sympathetic twelve year old, piled with Michael and me on the couch, providing comfort. She said she thought he was a pest but an endearing one. He, on the other hand, wanted to do everything she did, as she was his idol, albeit a mean one some of the time. When she felt wronged by anyone during those complicated early teen years, he was her loyal supporter. Each one had emergency room visits in the middle of the night during that time, and both chose to be there for the injured one. As a family, we spent a lot of time together.

Because of their age gap, the kids were never in the same school at the same time. In some ways that was a good thing as they were never treading on the other’s turf. That also meant their lives were more parallel than entwined. We spent time talking to them about how in the future, their relationship would be the longest and most sustaining of their lives if they prioritized each other. As they got older, they irritated each other less and supported each other more. They embraced each other’s friends. As they grew, it became clear that they’d absorbed our concept of family and were truly able to appreciate the strong sense of intimacy which was an extension of the powerful bond between Michael and me.

In 1999, our daughter graduated from high school and went off to college. Our son was in his last year of middle school. These two teenagers had sorted out their childhood issues and had turned into each other’s fans. Meanwhile Michael and I were in a transitional period in our lives. He was getting ready to embark on a new career, trading in his job as music store owner for teaching U.S. history. I was going to be holding the economic fort while my entire family was in school. Despite that pressure, I think that time solidified our family unit. As life pulled all of us in different directions, we tried to ensure that we blocked out family time when we could all be together. We appreciated the sense of refuge and connection that was obvious when we were together. We all liked each other’s company. Sometimes families can feel so awkward and uncomfortable. Ours was relaxed. We were all on each other’s teams.

Of course we all had problems, issues that required attention. That’s how life works. But the relief we felt in our family bubble exceeded the hopes Michael and I had for our family. We showed up for each other and continued to grow our bond. Our son joined us when we went off to follow our daughter in her athletic career in college. When he went to Washington to compete in the National Spelling Bee, she flew in from school to be there for him. We took a short winter trip to a state park every year and another every summer to a favorite destination on Lake Michigan. We laughed, we swam, we hiked, we ate and we talked. We had the good fortune of evolving in the same directions which made the potential friction attributable to age, political and personal differences minimal, at worst. The icing on our family cake occurred in 2003 when our daughter graduated from college and chose to pursue her law degree at our hometown university. She based her decision on the fact that she wanted to spend more time sharing experiences with her brother as the age difference between them was less significant than when they were little kids. Her presence back in town provided opportunities to deepen their connection while being a huge bonus for Michael and me. He was particularly moved since his own relationship with his older sister was pretty minimal. He felt so proud that despite his difficult youth, he’d managed to get the family he’d wished for since he was a boy.

Those law school years which coincided with the last few of our son’s high school life were special for all of us. Every family doesn’t have the luxury of having their high-achieving kids make choices about their futures which include staying close to home. That’s exactly what happened to us. When our son graduated from high school in 2005, the four of us took off on a two week road trip to New Mexico where we stayed at a conservation teaching ranch with one of our oldest friends from college.

We had a fabulous time, especially sweet as our days as a foursome were coming to an end. Our daughter had already met her future husband. Michael and I wanted both of the kids to be as fortunate as we’d been in finding big love. That fall our son went off to college, just a few hours’ drive away from home. Our girl was living in town, proceeding toward her professional life. We saw each other frequently. The following year we threw a wedding for our daughter; the one after that we all headed to St. Louis to share our son’s 21st birthday. Life had definitely changed, as it should. Michael and I were back to living on our own. We weren’t sad empty-nesters. We well remembered those first ten years in our life and easily transitioned back into that couple mindset.

The world continued to spin. My daughter and her husband set down deep roots in our hometown. They have two kids, satisfying careers and a house right across the street from ours, where years ago, we brought our baby girl home from the hospital. Our son graduated from college and after a year off, came back home to pursue his PhD. Although that took him to the tropics for half the year, he was home for the other half. He made himself present enough to become a beloved uncle, an intimate part of his nephews’ lives.

We went through the scary five years of Michael’s cancer. The four of us were together when his death came in 2017.

Two days after Michael died, the three of us went out for a meal. Our son, in the midst of a post-doc, was going to be leaving soon to continue his work. We decided to take a bleary-eyed selfie as we were leaving the restaurant and wound up with an eerie white light just over our shoulders. We all thought it was Michael, making his presence known. During these past years, our son has conducted research, taught university classes and found his life partner. He joins our daughter in having the big love we wished for both our kids. Our grandchildren are growing fast and I lament how many wonderful experiences Michael has missed that he would so dearly have loved.

I am moving forward along with everyone else. I still miss Michael constantly but I’ve used all my coping skills to get the most I can out of every day, especially knowing how much he wanted to lead a meaningful life, and for me to have one as well. I have a busy mind and often wonder whether I’ll ever get through the long list of assignments I’ve given myself before my time is finished. My kids and I live enmeshed. No matter where they are, on almost every day, they touch base with me and frequently with each other. For us that is normal. I’m grateful that I’ve developed a loving relationship with my son-in-law and that the foundation for a similar one has already begun with my son’s partner. I love my grandchildren. That said, in my deepest core, I think my most primal sense of myself in the universe will forever revolve around the four of us. Aside from the cosmic connection that still binds me to Michael, we are all tumbled together in what we called the family pile. A forever gift.

Post-script: My son is now married to the aforementioned partner. They have an infant daughter who was born in his hometown where they’ll be living until at least next year. Bounty upon bounty.

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