I told yet another story at my local storytelling group, Fresh Ground Stories here in Seattle, Washington. I’m becoming addicted to this group and all the wonderful people in it. I never would have imagined that I’d take to standing in front of a group of 150 people and exposing my soft underbelly, but there you have it.
The theme this particular month was “Say Yes”.
Here’s the recording of the story, but if you are unable or unwilling to hear a sound file, I’ll put the story below it. Let me know what you think!
Quite often I call myself an only child with siblings. There were three girls in my family, and I love my sisters very much, but one was 10 years older than me and the other was 9 years older, so by the time I stopped being a self-absorbed little brat, they had already left home.
We had different upbringings. Their childhood was spent with my abusive, alcoholic father and my still hopeful mother in Connecticut, mine was spent with my abusive stepfather and my by now despairing mother in Florida. Our politics and spiritual beliefs and accents were completely different.
I kind of looked at them as more mature pseudo-mothers who were rarely there. I spent half my life desperately trying to get their approval and never quite feeling as though I had. In fact, when my oldest sister had my nephew, even though I wasn’t present for the birth, I called her up and said, “It’s really strange. I’ve never even seen him face to face, but I already love him anyway, so I want you to know that if anything ever happens to you, I will be there for him.”
She responded, “I think we both know that’s a bad idea.” Among other things, I lived in sin with someone for 16 years. Scandalous.
As my nephew grew, I visited him as often as I possibly could. I took pride in being the cool aunt. The one he could ride roller coasters with, despite my white-knuckled terror. The one who would listen. Someone who would love him no matter what. I also wanted to sort of sneak other points of view into his life. Which went well as long as I didn’t get caught.
Then one day in 2007 I got a phone call from my sister to tell me that she had pretty advanced cancer. My nephew was 18 at the time. Too young. Too young.
A year went by. Toward the end, she said to me, “I need you to do something for me. I need you to promise me that you’ll be here for the funeral. Ryan is going to need you.”
Of course I said yes. This was the first time that she had really trusted me with anything. Ever. This was huge.
Two months later, she was gone. I bought my plane ticket so I’d be there in plenty of time for the funeral. I was going to fulfil her dying wish.
Unfortunately I had to change planes in Memphis. And there was going to be a delay. A 5 hour delay. A 5 hour, funeral-missing delay. They were gluing a new antenna on the plane, and it would take 5 hours for the glue to dry. And of course there was no other flight available. Oh, no. “Sorry, but here’s a 6 dollar lunch voucher…”
Have you ever had one of those soul-tearing, chest-heaving cries that leave you completely exhausted and Incapable of functioning? Well, I had one, all alone, right in the middle of the airport, with an audience of hundreds. For all the good it did me.
There was a tiny bit of good news, though. Her husband called me and said that his employer had missed the same flight, so when the two of us finally made it to Kansas City, we could share a rental car for the hour drive to his house. So that’s what we did.
When I met this total stranger, I must have looked horrible. Red, puffy, snotty, my hair all tangled. Depleted. Needless to say, he drove. As we got on the highway, he said to me, “So, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
Are you kiddin/g me right now? Can we all agree that there’s a time and place for that type of conversation? I:?t took every fiber of my being not to jump out of the moving car. I took a deep breath and said, “Look, I know you mean well, but I can’t have this conversation right now.” The rest of the trip was in awkward silence.
And when I got to the house, it was filled up with in-laws whom I had never met. I walked in and everyone stopped talking and just stared at me. Finally, my brother-in-law’s father said, “Well. Glad you could finally make it.”
I felt like I had been struck by lightning. So I just turned, went upstairs, and closed myself into the guestroom. I sat in there feeling like an utter failure. The one thing my sister had asked me to do, the one thing, and I couldn’t do it.
Eventually, my nephew got back to the house. He hugged me while I cried. He comforted me. This 19 year old young man who had just lost his mother comforted me. He calmed me down. He told me to take a shower and try to get some rest.
Later that night, I lay in the dark in that house that already felt empty of my sister, a house I knew I’d never return to. I began to accept the fact that some things are just going to be out of my control, and any approval I need has got to come from within.
I looked at the ceiling and I said, “You know, you have nothing to worry about. He’s going to turn out just fine. Just like I did.”
Since then, I’ve watched my nephew grow into an amazing man with my politics! Yay! And he also has integrity, compassion, conviction and decency. He happens to be visiting me, and he’s here tonight, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.