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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Family... you can’t live with them

Betty Firth
Posted 4/20/22

I am sending in this column from the Deep South, a region I have never visited before. I hadn’t seen my brother and his wife for six years, and his health has been poor, so we both felt it …

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Family... you can’t live with them

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I am sending in this column from the Deep South, a region I have never visited before. I hadn’t seen my brother and his wife for six years, and his health has been poor, so we both felt it might be the last time we would see each other. They moved to Alexandria, Louisiana, from Dallas two years ago to be near her family, so that was the first destination on my trip.
My relationship with my brother has rarely been easy, so I had some concern about the visit, limiting it to four and a half days. Though only three years apart, we were not close, and I’ve spent a lot of energy throughout my life trying to figure him out. We were so disconnected, I have felt that we were like two only children that just happened to be in the same house, living very different realities. I hadn’t known until quite recently that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, which explained a lot of the difficulty that he has with social skills and dealing with the world generally. I felt compassion for him, but I also refused to be the dumping ground for his sarcasm and anger.
I had hoped that we would be able to do better and have time to share and compare memories and stories, as he is the only living tether to my past. We each feel there is so much we don’t remember, and have seen where our distinct perspectives have imprinted quite different recollections, but he is the only other person who has experienced our family from the inside and the only witness to my childhood, so I value what he does recall. In fact, I have no contact with anyone who experienced our family from the outside either. I had unearthed a sketchpad that belonged to my father, which had some drawings and journaling in it, and I wanted to discuss it with my brother. There were also a few pages of writing in my mother’s handwriting tucked in between the pages.
I never anticipated my brother’s explosive reaction to my request to talk about our parents’ written thoughts. He just said he didn’t want to dig into the past, saw no benefit in it, and was very angry when I asked why. That incident clearly showed how we reacted to our upbringing differently. Our parents were very concerned with “looking good,” and my father did not cope with unpleasant emotions, so there was a lot of pretense along with suppressed emotions and “cold” anger. I was the kid with the radar always on alert to figure out what was going on, so I became the adult who wants to discuss and process everything out in the open because that feels safer. My brother followed my dad’s lead and prefers to stuff feelings down and walk out of the room or situation or relationship because that feels safer to him. So, we each are a threat to the other. And we were on Day One. I was wishing I’d opted for a three-day visit.
We did have some good moments, but it never felt really relaxed and easy. He resented any expression of concern for or discussion of his health, exhibiting quite a bit of denial. More than once he went from zero to full-blown anger in microseconds, misinterpreting what I had meant or even hearing incorrectly what I actually said. By Day Four, I decided I would just pack up and leave in the morning, exploring the area a bit on my own and catching my flight in the afternoon. I had a wonderful Louisiana lunch with crawfish and beignets and enjoyed the local art museum, wishing we could have done that together because we both enjoy art exhibits, but not for a moment regretting stepping out of the emotional roller coaster.
I did have some good talks with his wife. In fact, I spent more time talking with her than my brother. On that last morning she said that his angry reactions had been getting steadily worse, and she was concerned he might be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I knew he was feeling sad, too, because he wanted the visit to go well and had done some very thoughtful planning beforehand to ensure my comfort, but he just couldn’t control his reactions, and I couldn’t find a way to get through to him without triggering more negative reactions. It was very exhausting.
In planning my trip, I intentionally scheduled my brother first and my good friends in Mississippi second. I’ve known Susie for 35 years, and she’s like a dear sister. We mirror each other in many ways, particularly in our persistent fascination with and need to understand how the world works, meaning what makes people tick, how do organizations and communities function, and, most importantly, how can we create positive change. Sometimes––oftentimes these days––that means trying to discern meaning in chaos while keeping a grip on sanity in a world that often feels berserk. Susie and I can chew on a subject until all the flavor’s gone.
We’re also very comfortable with each other’s differences. She is a professor of chemistry and can get passionate about hydrogen bondings, which all sounds like Greek to me. But she’s an intuitive, creative, sensitive person, and we flow from one topic to the next and one activity to the next, just enjoying ourselves and each other’s company. Her husband is a perfect match for her, also a scientist, also a creative, smart, curious, inventive, accepting, and loving person who wants to leave the world a better place.
He welcomes me into their life and has become a good friend. We get each other’s humor and laugh a lot.
Coming from my brother’s to my friends’ home felt like escaping from a gloomy, gray unsafe mental ward into a warm, sunshiny nest of welcome, acceptance, and friendship. I will always be sad that my brother struggles to make friends and that he and I have not been able to figure out how to be easy with each other, but I am eternally grateful for the wonderful friends I have been so lucky to have in my life.
I found a fitting quote this week from Siobhan Shaw: “The Easter egg symbolizes our ability to break out of the hard, protective shell we’ve surrounded ourselves with.” May we all be so blessed and have loving others around us to help us hatch.

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