Standing in a Missouri funeral parlor, feet from my 89-year-old father’s casket, the strident voice of my older sister battered my ears. My other siblings were spread around the room, including one newly contacted brother: a complete stranger to me. My eyes locked for a moment with another brother, sitting in a chair. He was the only full sibling with whom I still communicated and had been at my side at the hospital when my father died.
For nearly six years, we’d been saying goodbye in one way or another. Dad, a handsome widower, had been diagnosed with dementia in 2014, and a doctor later declared him unable to manage his own finances. Family debates over the proper use of his money created heated conflicts among the five of us born to my parents during their 51-year marriage. Some wanted his money saved for future medical expenses. Others supported his random generous gifts to family and friends. Some siblings recognized the doctor’s declaration. Others didn’t.
Relationships splintered, and new sibling alliances formed, including ones with our two half-brothers. One we’d known about for years and never discussed; he was the quasi-family secret. The other half-sibling a sister had discovered during the early days of the pandemic through an online ancestry site. I’d been told that half-brother wanted to meet me in December. I never imagined our first encounter would be at Dad’s wake.
“Knock off the fighting,” Dad had said to me during our frequent visits, as if I was four, rather than in my forties. He hated that we no longer had family celebrations.
“I’m not engaging. I have them blocked,” I’d remind him, hating his reaction. His Nordic blue eyes reflected such pain.
At first, when the sibling divisions started, I offered to pay for Dad’s lawyer to advise everyone on his limits and his representatives’ responsibilities, but several siblings refused to meet with the attorney. I considered hiring my own lawyer. Childhood resentments grew, creating greater divisions. Instead of fists, both sides fought with words, exchanging rapid-fire texts and emails. I read messages and wondered how anyone who once saw me as a sister could bring themselves to use such words against me.
I felt I had to hide that I’d found love at long last with Steve, a Missourian I’d met when helping Dad the prior winter during a break from my Wall Street lawyer life. I hid the fact that I’d quit my long-term job in Manhattan to focus on my creative writing, too. I feared hateful messages about my happiness while at the same time craving the ability to celebrate these big steps with the very same people who spewed toxicity at me daily.
Weekly therapy appointments and daily discussions about what to do about my family filled many months. Finally, I knew I had to cut three siblings out of my life. I blocked their numbers in my phone and ceased communication entirely.
The quiet was profound. Without any messages provoking me, I began processing the loss of them.
I took a trip to Paris, then a mini-sabbatical, which included a retreat. I spent a lot of time in heavy contemplation, wondering if what I had done was right. After all, this was my flesh and blood. Despite the distance between me and the church in which I’d been raised, I even spoke to a priest, asking for help with my family dramas.
“Fixing your family is not your job,” he said.
Shocked that he’d said the same exact thing as a lawyer friend, I asked, “What do I do?”
“Work on forgiving. Your anger is like a hot coal in your palm, burning you, not them.”
Every day, I worked on forgiving, praying and meditating on letting go. I tried to release anger over the hurtful words spoken, texted and emailed over the past year. I tried to release the need to make everything right.
But then, I’d talk to Steve about our childhoods and wish I had photos from when I was born, trips to Ireland with my family or at Disney World with my sisters. My oldest sister had my keepsakes.
I didn’t miss the negativity. I didn’t miss the bickering. And I had friends and a new family with Steve with whom I could share my happiness. I asked myself if I really needed mementos of people who triggered angst. But the emptiness was still there.
In the viewing room for Dad, we didn’t display any photo collages. We didn’t know how many people would come due to the ongoing pandemic. I was relieved Covid prevented a reception line and all were masked, concealing from me the faces of people who had caused me pain and allowing me to ignore the family members who, weeks before, had held a birthday party to which I hadn’t been invited.
“Families are complicated,” one of Mom’s friends said to me when she learned I hadn’t been included; her husband simply said, “Your family is strange.” But is it? I wondered. Or are we secretly normal? Do other families struggle just as much as mine?
The next morning at Dad’s funeral, my siblings remained divided, as evidenced by our pew selections. Dad’s casket was in the center aisle. I sat to his right with my allies. I didn’t see my half-brothers. I didn’t know if the new one was even there.
As the priest spoke, I looked across the congregation, catching a glimpse of a sister. The bitterness I was used to feeling eluded me. Despite what I’d been raised to believe, my “family” was not all the people who shared my DNA or my home as a child. I could make my peace with that.
My family was the one brother who called me every day after doctor’s appointments as I struggled in New York. My family was the friend who regularly prayed with me in our Manhattan office and called now to listen and advise on marriage and stepparenting. My family was the friend who contacted me daily for a year, from across the Atlantic, after our other friend was killed in a plane crash. My family was the friend who took late-night phone calls from me when I needed help with dating and gave me a room in her Village apartment and a job watching her dog when I needed a break from living alone. These were the people who shared my joy when I first met Steve and were eager to get to know him.
I cried behind my mask as I sat in the pew. Dad’s funeral was really a goodbye to the charade. It didn’t matter that my siblings and I had a shared history: Mom and Dad were dead and our family unit was, too. That was something to grieve but also something I had to accept.
As I slipped my hand into Steve’s, my eyes caught those of my brother of choice. He nodded, a simple gesture reinforcing our bond. Across the aisle from us sat the soon-to-be permanent strangers carrying the title “siblings,” and I felt peace.