My family, on the surface, is a pretty normal bunch. No divorces in three generations, no epic rivalries, pretty close-knit. As such, my childhood was fairly unmarred by prototypical family drama.
It is funny when you get past a certain age, and begin to realize that members of your family have lives that extend beyond your knowledge of them in their family role. It is an interesting revelation that your parents are indeed real people.
It was never concealed growing up that my mother’s upbringing had been tumultuous. It was common knowledge that my maternal grandfather was a recovered alcoholic, overt in his avoidance of alcohol. However, it was only upon a cross-country trip with my mother when I was 22 that the full story began to unfold, and scattered pieces begin to interlock to form a picture. How my grandfather had another family before he met my grandmother, who later disavowed all knowledge of him, and my mother has two half-brothers she’s never met. How he cheated on my grandmother with her close friends, and, like clockwork, she would take my mother and my aunt, move into a cramped apartment for 6 months, only to return right on time. How my grandparents still rented their home, for despite both having outwardly successful careers, my grandfather’s drinking and my grandmother’s affinity for shopping led to the draining of any form of savings. And how it was my birth, and my mother’s assertion that my grandfather would be denied any contact with me unless he stopped drinking, that led him to near instantaneously stopping, cold turkey, a state he has maintained with inspiring strength and no slip-ups for over 26 years.
All these things I was blind to while in the middle of a lake, fishing pole in hand, with my grandfather, or on a balcony overlooking the mountains playing cards with my grandmother.
Since then, I have been suddenly exposed to the reality of a whole slew of mixed-up family dynamics—like the glaringly apparent underlying currents of resentment between my grandparents, who remains living in adjacent suites in an assistant living facility. Or how my aunt has become the defender of my grandmother, who has suffered injustices throughout her marriage, while my mother has become the guardian of my grandfather, who is still seeking forgiveness after nearly three decades sober.
And, as they do in old ages, things have been further complicated by health problems. My grandfather’s degenerative blindness has left a formerly active man, despite an active mind, reliant on others for so much. Perhaps worse, though, is my grandmother’s progressing Alzheimer’s Disease.
I fall into an interesting role in family. Anyone who is a psychologist, particularly in a family where an undergrad degree is the exception, rather than the norm, knows how you become the default mediator, how your knowledge on every family conflict is sought out. It’s frustrating, because sometimes I just want to be a daughter, a cousin, a granddaughter, rather than our resident psychologist. I want to have the luxury that everyone else in the family has in debates of being emotionally guided, rather than logical. I don’t want to have the pressure of always being neutral and level-headed. But my knowledge pulls me in, and I can’t help myself but intervene, but ask about my grandmother’s treatment and test results, and surmise about how to best cope with her deficits. It doesn’t help that I did a practicum in geriatric psychiatry, and thus have dealt with these issues head-on—granted, while in my “professional headspace”.
And it certainly doesn’t help that I know intimately the painful decline my grandmother is in the process of undergoing. How she is retreating to the past as her only solace, for the present is becoming such a jumble. How her seemingly nonsensical explanations for commonplace events, such as losing her keys, are only going to increase. How her calling me her cousin or niece is only the first step in an eventual forgetting of me and the memories tying us together. How the mood swings my mother speaks of now are only going to escalate.
At times like this, I hate that I know any of these things. I wish to rip this knowledge straight from my brain, because it is too overwhelming to focus on. I want to just know her in the moment, to turn off my head, to stop analyzing how things have changed from my last visit and the implications of that.
I don’t want her symptoms to be seen in the framework of her and my grandfather’s relationship anymore. It is beyond all that now. Her mood swings and forgetfulness are no longer tied into him—they just are what they are. I don’t want everyone to point out to her every time she makes a mistake—we all know what is going on, her included, why do we need to twist the knife in anymore because she told the same story early that day or she forgot where she put her jacket? I don’t want everything to be judged by the negative framework of the past. I want to celebrate the good memories instead, both her accomplishments and the happiness that her and my grandfather did share, because there are so many of these memories to get lost in instead.
I just want to scream at my family that now is the time to put these skeletons to rest.