Family Matters


Cousins, June 2013. Photo by Tina Sbrigato,
Cousins, June 2013. Photo by Tina Sbrigato,

For the last two weeks, my mind has been on family matters. First, there was the long-anticipated trip to Colorado to spend a week with my cousins on one side of the family. My cousins and I grew up together–an odd statement, considering we lived on both coasts and halfway in between, such that we only saw each other once or twice a year, and sometimes not that often. In adulthood, there are oceans between some of us. And yet for all our sprawling distribution, both geographic and philosophical, the tie that binds us together is strong enough that we were all willing to spend our vacation in each other’s company, certain of love and acceptance, even though it would feel really, really weird to say it out loud.

At the end of that cousins reunion, I came home to sit for a few hours by the hospital bed of my grandmother on the other side of the family. People were flying in for final visits. In that room, there was no talking around the subject, no false cheer. Grandma asked us all to pray for death. At ninety-eight, she certainly has the right.

I thought by the time I published this post, she would have passed on. But it turns out she truly is the world’s most stubborn woman, and although she’s probably in the dying process, it’s not quite time yet.

Still, at the time it really did look like the end. My sister and I said a rosary with her, the words taking on so much more real a meaning than usual. When we were done, she rested a while, and when she woke I sat beside her. What do you talk about in such situations?

At last, I decided just to say what was on my mind. “I was thinking about Grandpa on the drive up here,” I told her.

“That’s been a long time.” Grandma’s speech was slow and labored.

“I hope you’ll see him very soon,” I said.

“Oh, he must be so far up in Heaven, I’ll never catch up.”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s how it works,” I told her. “I’ll bet he’s waiting right on the other side for you.”

“It’s been an awful long wait,” she said. Which is true. It’s been since 1976.

Grandma, in her garden in 2003. To say this woman had a green thumb in her prime is a gross understatement.
Grandma, in her garden in 2003. To say this woman had a green thumb in her prime is a gross understatement. She kept up her garden and ours, too, and ours was, well….big enough to provide most of the vegetables for a family of six.

But then, out of nowhere, she was reminiscing in slow, halting sentences. We talked about her children, her nieces and nephews, her wedding day, on May 1: “It was snowing like nobody’s business when we came out of church. They held a paper over me until I got to the car.” And a new nugget I’d never heard–that her mother-in-law gave them five cows as a wedding present, to help them start their dairy farm.

I told her how I once climbed the steeple of the same church she got married in, while the rest of the family was a block away at a family reunion at the the Knights of Columbus hall. Her eyes popped open wide, her mouth pulled long. “Naughty, naughty!” she said, and on the far side of the bed my uncle shook with quiet laughter.

Most of the time, you go through life like a worker bee, buzzing from one task to the next, getting done what must be done, eyes focused in on the details. It’s only at times like these when all that other stuff, essential though it may be, fades a bit, gets fuzzy around the edges, and you clearly see what is real, and what is fleeting. Ephemeral. At times like these, you go home and hug your kids. Not because you think “What if I lost them, or they lost me?” But because you realize that in the end, those invisible, unbreakable bonds that draw us to distant mountaintops and sterile hospital beds–those bonds are who we really are. They are the web that underlies every endeavor, successful or unsuccessful, the safety net beneath our tight-rope walk, and the guy wire that allows us to fly. And the more family you have around you, the more ties there are to underlie, and catch, and draw you skyward.

Many times, immured in the madness of kids breaking things and bickering and falling to pieces if I dare to consider walking outside to move the sprinkler without taking them along, I think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t have had so many kids so close together. How hard it seems, how much managerial work it is instead of the nurturing I envisioned when I dreamed of motherhood. (The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.)

But at times like these, when family matters lurch to the front, the veil pulls back on all those details, and I see the end result of all that I’m doing now. And I realize what I knew all along, but had lost sight of in dealing with the minutiae: it’s worth it. Every moment, even the bad ones. Because what matters is love, and family is love.