Saturday, April 21, 2012

Being a Round Peg in My Family's Square Hole


In a few minutes, my family and I will head over to my brother's house to celebrate his forty-sixth birthday. My parents will be there as well. They are living with my brother while they search for a new house. Earlier, my wife's father and step-mother were at our house where they were staying while they were in town for a couple of days. All we need is for my wife's mother and step-father to drive up here from the Catskills and get her sister to fly in from Florida to see pretty much all the family in the space of a couple days.

Seeing family is good and it is bad. I can just hear a crazy old Harry Nilsson song right now in which he sings, "good, bad, good, bad, good-bad-good-bad" in an increasingly silly and kid-like voice. I feel increasingly silly and kid-like the more I see family. I'm just used to climbing back into the familiar roles we established for one another way back when. This weekend has seen the friction that comes of trying to change the shapes of the holes into which we peg ourselves.

My brother hates to make familial decisions. He is a single man who will likely remain single and who, though two years older than me, has become something of the baby of the family. I have a wife and children to look out for me, but my brother requires extra careful handling. Thus, often enough on his birthday, it is my job to decide what we will do, where we will do it, when, and so on. This year I made the decision that I wasn't in any kind of mood to make those decisions. I just didn't want the responsibility and figured that he could handle it. My brother resisted by not making any decisions and asking, "well, what do you want to do?" He's not trying to be difficult, just going back to the way things have been for a decade or so. He doesn't want to decide and wants it done for him.

So then my mother wants me to make the decision, but she calls my wife instead of me in order to get things going. I call my mom back and ask her what my brother has decided. "Well, nothing!" she says, sounding exasperated in his non-decision-making but also implying her frustration that I have not picked up the fumbled ball and carried it down the field. "What should we do?" she asks. Again, like my brother, she is offering the situation up to me. I don't want it. I tell her that she should ask him again and see what decision he can make. The phone call ends with her saying, "alright" in a wobbly kind of way, as though she is lost and I have just told her to see what she can do about finding her way back.

Then my father calls me and asks what kind of cake and ice cream we should get. I ask if they have asked my brother. "He says to ask you," because my wife is gluten free right now and they can't figure out what that means. I tell them to get the cake that they want and that we will bring something for my wife to eat. My father, whether from frustration or a growing lack of phone skills hangs up on me. Twice.

So, my family is causing me some anxiety right now. Which is to say that I am feeling the pull of the old ways. It would just be so much easier to be what they expect me to be and get it over with. Well, it would be easier in this moment, but I know that the long-term happiness I'm working toward depends on defining myself in this new way.

Still, it's tough in the short term. My wife's father and step-mother have just left and during their two-day stay have been having in-depth talks with my wife about things important to the three of them. Along the way, my name has come up a few times and there are things about me that have been upsetting to them. There is the feeling that I have been tough on them, that I'm not open enough, and a few other things. All of this is reasonable and good criticism. I have been closed to them and I am sometimes tough on them. I can be nicer.

There's more about that, but I haven't put it together in my mind the way I have with my immediate family, so it will have to wait. All of it is a process of determining who I am. Which is hard work. I thought I would be done with most of that work by now and it's only in the last year or so that I have begun to understand that I won't ever be done with that job. It's continuous. Every day. Every hour of the twenty-four.

Perhaps writing will help me figure out how to do the walking work of this. And so, as always, the only option is to write on.