A week ago today, my young cousin died. I went “home” to be with family… my aunt and uncle and 3 generations of their offspring. The visitation was packed; there had to be thousands of people in the hours my cousins stood greeting those who came to pay their respects. Hour after hour they stood, hugging, shaking hands, smiling, making conversation, holding themselves like sturdy pottery – solid but, I knew, still breakable. That day and the next, at the funeral, I saw an amazing thing I can only describe as a ballet of love and support. Seamlessly my cousins and their spouses and children did everything that needed to be done and said everything that needed to be said, while looking out for each other and for their parents. When one person would be momentarily overcome with emotion, another would fill in and offer a sheltering arm until that cousin would recover and be ready to do the same for the next one needing help.

The funeral was held in the church of my childhood, a soaring space of light and marble and stained glass and music. The minister spoke directly to the young man who had died, asking him to share his new-found peace with his loved ones left behind. My cousins led the songs, read the readings, acted as pallbearers, and above all supported each other. They enfolded me into their midst as though I had not been away for years. Somehow in their pain they found time to welcome me. I listened to the hymns, singing the ones I knew, and one line stood out to me: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

There is more than one way to lose family. Until this week I felt I had lost much of mine. Death and distance, differences separating us like wide rough rivers, lack of patience and lack of time together… People who had once been everything to me had begun to seem like odd and unkind strangers.

When my little sis and I were young, family visits were the best things in life. Knowing that someone was coming to stay meant delightful anticipation and delicious foods, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee in the morning, the sounds of laughter and voices drifting upstairs, comforting and exciting at the same time. We never wanted to miss a minute of the fun, no matter who was visiting. Once I slept on the dining room floor, sick with bronchitis but unwilling to lose any time with the family. Another time, my sister and I rode our bikes to the end of the street to watch for our older sister’s family car which was bearing her and her husband and our nieces and nephews to us. When finally it came into sight, little sis and I raced our bikes back to our house at the dead end, unbearably eager to tell our parents, “They’re here! They’re here!” But little sis skidded out on the grass and fell, landing on the handlebar of her bike, so that big sis and family drove up just in time to see little sis vomit into the grass. Our brother-in-law tried not to alarm us but he was clearly concerned at the large amount of red liquid issuing from little sister’s mouth; he didn’t know she had just had a big glass of wildberry juice.

Big sis and her family and I are estranged. I don’t know what to do about that; I don’t know what I want to do about it, or if I want to do anything about it. Even before we were estranged, my branch of the family didn’t have that skill of our cousins – that ability to be both strong and vulnerable and to be okay with being both. We seemed to divide up those qualities among us as if we were each limited to one and had to choose. Some of us chose to be strong all the time, which was of course ridiculous and impossible, because we’re all really just pottery, breakable no matter how much we pretend to be stone. Others of us chose to be permanently vulnerable – always wanting comfort but not offering it to others. My siblings and I never perfected that ballet of strength and support… I don’t remember us ever even all trying.  But that dance is a beautiful thing and the people who can do it – my cousins included – are beautiful and amazing people, not because they are always strong but because they trust that they don’t always have to be. Sometimes they lose each other to death, but the rest of the time they hold on, determined to keep each other from falling and breaking.

❤ ❤ ❤