That’s not quite true. I was present as a small, cherry wood box containing her ashes was put into the ground at the family plot in the Morrison Cemetery in Deerfield. My brother-in-law and cousin did the actual deed. I just stood by, uncomfortably aware that the focus of this ceremony probably wouldn’t have wanted me there.
It was three years ago almost precisely that my sister succumbed to cancer after taking care of everything, including my deliberate exclusion. (Sordid details in a previous blog.) Her husband is a gentle, sweet man who respected her wishes in all things, even if he didn’t agree. He has been nothing but kind to me in an ugly situation.
I have never gotten on well with my family. We are people of strong opinions who pass judgement and then stick by our guns. I can still be harsh on myself and others, but I’ve been trying very hard to change that. Forgiveness and tolerance are our duty to one another, the only path to peace. At the heart of the wisdom taught by nearly every spiritual tradition in the world is compassion towards all, even those who do not wish you well.
Standing there on that bleak, sunless November day, the cold dampness of that hard earth creeping up to chill my feet, I realized I had failed in my duty. The remaining fragments of my family–my sister’s husband, my mother’s cousin and my cousin–reminisced about the dear departed; I was frozen into silence by a wrenching flood of violently conflicting emotions.
On the one hand, I clung like a lost child to wisps of memory: names and events barely familiar, ghosts from a distant childhood; a half-forgotten song my mother and grandmother used to sing about a field of new-mown hay, a cottage by the way, and a mother dear to shield me from all harm.
On the other hand, so much they talked about was part of a past I never knew. My sister was twelve years older. Families build a shared stock of stories, a kind of mythology that holds them together. I wasn’t a part of most of that. I was born late to a family already starting to show the craze lines. Affluent, socially prominent, both my parents movers and shakers in Seacoast New Hampshire who had built up their positions from humble beginnings. It was always emphasized, we came from good stock, Swedish and German immigrants who were educated, upright, God-fearing people of quality.
I did not fulfill expectations right from the get-go. First of all, I was not the boy they planned for. And I was not the dutiful, obedient, lady-like girl they would have settled for, a suitable sibling for my accomplished and lovely elder sister. I was difficult. Colicky as a baby, loud and boisterous as a child, rebellious as a teenager. Judgement was passed, and I was found wanting.
To be fair, they did the best they could with me. But my mother began a battle with cancer that she would lose when she was fifty and I was twelve. My father never recovered from her loss. The craze lines deepened into fractures and the family fell apart. At seventeen I was out on my own, nursing deep wounds and resentments.
I’m fifty-eight, now, and a very different person. In a way, I got religion. But not the conservative, Anglican/Episcopalian theism of my family. Much of my inspiration comes from the likes of the Dalai Lama, solidly atheistic. So I still didn’t fit in. And my attempts in the last few years to forgive, understand and reconcile have not worked out so well. Standing there by that small hole in the ground into which a box with my sister’s remains had been put, listening to my brother-in-law reading from the Book of Common Prayer, the cousins with whom I do not get along on the other side of the hole, my sister’s deathbed rejection of me an elephant looking over our shoulders, tears streaming down my cheeks, I realized.
I had not forgiven, could not forgive, no matter how hard I tried. All that anger and bitterness, sense of loss and alienation, the goddamned unfairness of it all, welled up and screamed. My family had not, and could not, forgive me for being who I was, who I am. And I furiously resented them for it.
So I have not buried my sister. That small hole could not contain all the toxin that remains behind. And no matter how much I try to let it go, it clings with diabolical tenacity.