The Photo Not Taken

People say the honesty in my writing has been helpful to them or someone they have shared it with. I am pleased and a little surprised by this because in many respects my writing has been far more self-protective than revelatory.  But I have reached a stage where I think I am strong enough to risk a little more. 

Part of this new strength comes from being old enough to give far less of a damn what people think of me, but it is combined now with a realization that for the first time—maybe ever, when I think about it—I don’t feel accountable to anyone but myself.

I used to say that everyone I was related to by blood could fit in one minivan.  I have one sister but I never had even a single cousin.  I had an aunt and uncle on both maternal and paternal sides,  but they didn’t have children and have by now all died. My parents died far too young around forty years ago. My sister has three children, all with families, but I have little to no contact with two of the three, and I have played no role in their children’s lives. I love my sister but we have very little contact. Neither of my own children had children. I could realistically say now that every blood relative I have a relationship with now could fit in a compact car.  For some people this might seem unutterably sad, and for some it might seem like a dream come true, but for me, these are simply facts, and having a family to fall back on is just not part of the way I make my way through this life.

I don’t feel at all unloved. I have beautiful friends who would not let me fall through the cracks, and they are a family of another sort. But one quality they all share—a necessity, really, to be a friend at this point—is that they acknowledge that I don’t need to do what works for them at my own expense, that my life is my own to shape, and my decisions are mine alone. And they know I feel the same about them.  

I said above that I am more willing to say risky things, so here is one. At this stage in my grieving process, I am able to acknowledge how much freer I feel. I have no one to answer to and no one else’s wishes or needs to factor in.  I am done with the struggle I share with so many other women, to declare boundaries and stick to them.  I can put myself first now without having any thought to whom I might be letting down.

I am done with the worst gut wrenching phone calls one can get about about family members, because I have weathered them all now.. I don’t have to find my way through the impenetrable forest of trying to understand and figure out what  to do about the intractable mental illness of people I love. I can’t be hurt anymore by the damage loved ones, especially the most fragile ones, can do to my self esteem. So it’s not all bad to be in my shoes. I think Adriano and Ivan would be doing whatever constitutes a high-five in their realm upon seeing that I have reached the point where I can see the good side of moving on.  

Would I trade this for a life more like that of intact families, where I would be the proud mother of successful children and grandmother to a beautiful, healthy next generation, still married to a mentally stable person who had grown alongside me for fifty-plus years now?  Would I like to have just one photo of a happy, multigenerational family?  Would Adriano and Ivan prefer to be in that picture to where they ended up? I suppose the answer is, who wouldn’t?  But maybe another, darker question is, how many people really have that kind of family. One of the funniest one-liners I ever heard was from someone, whose name I have forgotten, who said that relatives are like a genetic blind date.  Except the date goes on and on. To have the happy photo, one can’t be spared the hidden pain.  No one escapes unscathed.

The one piece that is missing in that family photograph is who I would be as Grandmother Laurel. My life as it evolved required different choices, different compromises, different opportunities, different challenges.  Now my family photo is a selfie. That’s the thing about the road not taken, or in this case the road not there or at least not apparent.  It wouldn’t necessarily lead to that happy group photo, regardless of anything I might have done differently. There’s only what is, and what I can make of it, and that is entirely up to me.