“Should I go get him and bring him back?” I asked the group assembled around my sister’s patio table in her backyard.
We were days into my trip to Michigan and it had been a mostly tense experience. The kids were having a blast being all together, but my sister and my brother were trading jabs so often that sometimes I felt like ducking my head as they flew across the room. I’d responded to the tension by stocking up on alcohol and my father did the same. This had the desired effect of relaxing us, but also had the unwanted effect of loosening our tongues.
Since I didn’t see my brother and sister more than once a year for the most part, it meant that we hardly ever progressed in our relationships. We always fell back into the same old comfortable routines; my sister would complain about my brother to me and tell me stories about his latest bout of irresponsibility. I would either become peacemaker or co conspirator. My brother would respond with his trademark biting sarcasm, and I would respond in either of my two usual ways with him as well.
But throwing my father into the mix was putting lighter fluid on the already smoldering family dynamic. And this evening, we’d sat around my sister’s table trading unsavory family stories. These were the hard ones, the ones that my kids didn’t even really know about because they were so awful and so personal; their eyes grew wide as the stories rolled off our alcohol sweetened tongues. It was finally too much; my brother stormed away from the table and into the house to sulk.
“I don’t care if you go get him,” my sister answered. “He gave as good as he got. He just is mad that the stories are true and he looks bad in them.” She was right of course; my brother was very good at applying a double standard to his own and other people’s behaviors.
“Let him be,” my father agreed, taking another sip of his whisky.
“I can’t,” I responded, the peacemaker coming out. “We’re here five days, and I don’t want one of them to be ruined by this kind of ridiculous childishness.”
I went after him into the house, all ready to smooth things over.
“Get out of here,” my brother growled at me. “You owe me an apology for what you said out there.”
I mentally replayed the conversation in my head. “Don’t be like this,” I said, trying not to engage. “You know it’s all talk out there. Just come back out and try not to let your anger get the best of you.”
“No way. You guys are all making me look bad in front of Dad.”
Ah, there it was. And before I knew what I was saying, the words came out of my mouth: “Well, you are doing a great enough job on that all on your own without any help from us.”
I could see the red rise in my brother’s face. “I’m not going out there until you and our sister give me an apology.”
“Well, you’re not going to get it,” I answered evenly. “We’re telling the truth out there, and sometimes the truth hurts. If anything, you owe us an apology for the fact that these stories even exist.”
He glared at me. “I have made up for my past mistakes a long time ago.”
I swallowed hard. “You will never, ever be able to make up for your past mistakes.” A million images of our angry life in the ruins of my parents’ divorce flashed in front of my eyes. When he’d hit me. When he’d stolen from me. When we’d locked up our possessions in padlocked bedrooms. When he’d tried to break down my bedroom door. When I’d had to be sent away because his shrinks told my mother he’d probably hurt me if he was left alone with me. It was a buzzy, blurry mess in my head. I started recounting these memories out loud, one by one, until I was screaming so loud my throat hurt. “You can never fix what you broke in me!” I yelled so loudly that the entire neighborhood must have heard.
My brother walked out of the room and I crumpled onto the floor in tears. How could I have possibly thought coming here would be anything but a disaster?