I received a teary call from my sister the other evening. Our mother is visiting her this week. Her boys were both graduating and they had invited their grandmother to this milestone event. One was graduating from middle school and the other from high school. Yes, my baby sister’s boys are growing up!
The reason for the tears? It turns out that on the eve of the graduation, my mother took it upon herself and called my sister’s ex in-laws, and invited them over for the ceremonies and gathering at my sister’s home. When the boys heard about this, they were quite shocked, indignant, confused, saddened.
It has taken my sister and my nephews several years to straighten out their lives from the turmoil brought about by my ex-brother-in-law’s alcohol abuse and his infidelity. He had told my sister that he was very much committed to staying married to her on the condition that the mistress would be present in their lives. To this, my sister pretty much thumbed him to the door.
There followed years of battling over minutiae of where the kids would spend their holidays and with who, or the alternating weekends that would frequently get changed at the last-minute. All this came to a head one fateful weekend when the older of the boys came home with a black eye. No comments or explanations were volunteered by their father when he dropped them off at my sister’s doorstep.
It turns out that the mistress was peeved when she came out of her room and saw the younger of the boys drinking juice while sitting on HER sofa. She started to berate him loudly as she approached him. Then she repeatedly hit the back of his head with the back of her hand. So, the older brother ran to them and inserted himself between his little brother and the mistress. The older one held his hands up to ward off her swings. She was on a roll. The boys’ father came in from the garage and saw what was happening. Without taking the time to ask what was going on, he went behind his son and enclosed his arms around him. Without any protection, one of the swings landed right smack on the boy’s left eye. Hence, the black and blue face handed to my sister that evening. (Oh, did I mention the bruises on his shins from the kicks he received from her heeled shoes?)
That night, my sister involved the police. The two boys were separated for individual interviews. It was not surprising their stories corroborated: The unexpected rage so disproportionate to the minor infraction of drinking juice while sitting on the sofa. There were no spills. A calm reprimand or reminder would have sufficed. There were the pleas from the boys for her to stop hitting them. And there was the action of the father that facilitated the last blow to the face. The lack of explanation from either adult at the scene.
Needless to say, my sister was eventually able to request that all future visitations be only with their father. Alone. It has been four years since the incident. And sadly, it has been four years since the boys have seen their father. In the meantime, he continues to delay providing permission (only by FAX) when the boys need to travel out of the city for school events or vacation, until the last minute. This would make it difficult to avail of good deals on airfares and accommodations. But, my sister has learned to live with the imposed irritation.
My sister still drives her boys during holidays to bring gifts to their paternal grandparents every year. They are known to be gracious and polite. She insists on this. This is in spite of the fact that the paternal grandfather continues to blame my sister for the dissolution of their son’s marriage to her. He claimed that my sister should have stayed with the marriage and put up with the mistress. After all, she got to live in the “main house.” (Are your eyeballs rolling up yet?)
When the boys asked their maternal grandmother why she made the unilateral decision to invite their other grandparents, she looked at them disapprovingly. Then she replied that she thought they ought to. After all, they are still their grandparents. she defended self-righteously. Then, she added that she wanted to piss off the mistress. This is her way of not making the mistress “win,” she declared defiantly. (Another chance to roll your eyeballs!)
My sister was close to tears by then. The boys were really upset at this point. They turned around with hunched shoulders and retreated to their rooms. Later on, they went to their mother, who by this time, was so upset she needed the respite of her bathroom to regroup.
By the evening, the news of the boys’ graduation may have reached their father, they surmised. In light of this, the boys decided to write their father to give him the news of their graduation and the reasons why they have not invited him to attend. In their letter they told him that he has not made any effort to be a part of their lives. That he has not adequately protected them, as evidenced by that fateful day four years ago. They also are sick and tired of all the drama, and frankly, they want to move on with their lives. Their graduation is a happy event and they did not want anything to tarnish the memory of a significant milestone in their lives.
Well, the grandparents did not come. A check for each boy came in the mail. One aunt from the family did come. My mother sat with her during the gathering. It turns out, the elders have not communicated much with nor seen their son in a few years. It turns out they could not stand the mistress. It turns out that their son has not provided any help with caring for his elderly ailing parents, even if his siblings have informed him of their deteriorating health.
As for my mother, it was not clear from my sister if she was sorry she opened some old wounds. But this morning, my sister did get the opportunity to say her piece.
She explained to our mother that she and her boys have had to rebuild their lives in the last four years. They have reached a comfortable equilibrium between coming to terms with the past and their own struggles as a family and as individuals growing up. They have somehow accepted the realities and they have been able to cut loose from the cycle of guilt, self-blame, resentment and the sense of betrayal. The distance and the lack of contact from their father (and the mistress) and the few controlled visits to their father’s family on their terms all helped to blur the painful images until they melted away, making it possible to look towards something more promising.
At this point, none of them care if the mistress is happy or miserable. It doesn’t matter anymore. As for the mistress “winning,” well, this is not a race or a competition.
She called me to talk about her conversation with our mother. Perhaps all these constructs are generational: the ought-to’s, have-to’s and should-do’s. Or the need to find ways to “win” by getting even. However, all these preoccupations only serve to hold us back to dwell on what we cannot change instead of moving on and well, living our lives.
All of us will have experiences that we would never wish on anyone we care about. Experiences that are powerful and distressing, and can test our endurance, our values, our core beliefs. It is most affecting when it’s done by people we love and care about. But there is a time to forgive and let go. There is a time to be at peace with it. There is also the opportunity to move on. We have the right to move on and live our lives. We just have to recognize that sometimes, we ourselves can impose our own constraints with all our self-inflicted rules and norms. When we can free ourselves from these, we can recognize the possibilities that were always there for us to pursue.
In our road to the new life, we don’t necessarily have to include the very people who were part of the pain even after we have forgiven them. I truly believe that we can coexist but not necessarily include them in our circle.
At least, for the time being. Who knows what the future might bring? It’s never over until it’s over, right?