Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Reassessing family dynamics

When my father-in-law was still alive, I thought his wife was the driving force behind their frequent visits to our house. Three years after his death, I'm starting wonder if I was wrong. If I was wrong then, it means that my husband may be more his father's son than we ever realized.

Al was a small dark haired, dark eyed man with slender build, a quick wit and a terrible addiction to alcohol. Most of his adult life saw him as the sole breadwinner for his family, in between disasters and binges. I know very little about his family or childhood, but I was around to see the damage done to my husband by being forced to be responsible for things like car repair, buying his own groceries, and replacing the washing machine too early in life because Al was on a bender.  On the surface, Al seemed a stereotypical drunk father who didn't do much for his family, but I am having my doubts.

My husband's family is terrible about saying what they actually feel or think, so I've always been forced to interpret their words and actions at face value.  Al, in particular, would speak his opinion in sardonic and sarcastic tones; while the effect was often humorous and clever, he hid his meanings behind witty one-liners. In the two years leading up to his death, even before he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, he and my husband were starting to connect more.  Old hurts and strange happenings from the past were coming to light, sometimes in surprising fashion.

The last visit we had to see Al, before the day he died, was Father's Day; weak and tired, Al was shuffling off to rest again, while my husband was sitting in a chair holding our sleeping son, Aiden, who wasn't quite two yet.  Al, for the only time that I could remember, stopped to kiss my husband and Aiden on the forehead.  Then he looked Colin in the eye and told him to take care of his family, not his mother.  He smiled to me on his way past, and I started tearing up. That was the person I think Al probably was underneath a lifetime of disappointments, criticisms, and alcoholism.

Now, three years, to the day, passed his death, I have to wonder about who Al really was and what role he played in the family's dynamics.  In the last few years before his death, Colin's family visited frequently.  Since his death, not a single one of them has visited. They have skipped the kid's birthdays and all holidays in favor of travelling to far away places to visit obscure and distant relatives. Our few visits there have been horrible.  The last one involving what I was told was a shared birthday party for my mother-in-law and myself (our birthdays are one week apart and Aiden's follows mine eight days later), where I ended up doing all the work, while the guests treated me with less respect than a maid.  We haven't been back in two years.

Everything changed for my husband's relationship with his family when his father died.  On one hand, he, as the eldest son, was handed the mantle of patriarch.  He was expected to have answers for all problems, but the advice, though asked for, never followed.  When he had an opinion about anything he wasn't asked for, he was treated with disdain. When his priorities had to lie with raising his sons and providing for his family, he was bombarded with guilt trips. He's been excluded from the news of the larger family (meaning I had to ask his aunts to start contacting us directly rather than leaving things up to Colin's mother) and decisions (his poor father's cremains, as far as we know, are still in cardboard box in the closet waiting for Al's wish to be scattered in the mountains unfulfilled). All of this makes me wonder if Al might have been more sentimental and more of driving force in the family than we ever imagined.

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