Our recent road trip across the United States was a travelogue of astonishing sights, but it was also a journey of discovery about family. As I get older, I seek to connect with family members who …
Our recent road trip across the United States was a travelogue of astonishing sights, but it was also a journey of discovery about family. As I get older, I seek to connect with family members who have gone astray in my life. Mostly the distances are geographic, but sometimes that distance has grown more profound.
The point of our journey to Seattle was to connect with my brother’s eldest child who I hadn’t seen since his funeral, 25 years ago. She was 19 then. I had been a part of her life since her birth, experiencing the trauma of her parent’s rancorous divorce, her early separation from her father and the gradual distancing that came with her mother’s many moves, to New England, Florida, Brazil and finally Seattle. She used to spend a week or two with us every summer until she was 16, when she became my mother’s helper for a time. At that time she was a budding young woman, who clearly had not experienced the kind of teenage freedoms that I remember having. She was shy with boys, even a little afraid of them.
Her mother had enrolled her in a school for the severely learning disabled. Most of the students were male and of varying ages. She had little experience in the kind of socializing that most children have in school. She had come to think of herself as incapable of integrating into a “normal” school setting. Whether that was true or not, I don’t know. I never saw a psychologist’s assessment, but I know the little girl she was. And now I know the adult woman.
As an infant she was curious, verbal and outgoing. She loved her paternal grandmother, who adored her, and made every effort to stay in touch with her until she was no longer able. As a little girl she loved to sing and was very musical. One day, at about age six, she was sitting in the back seat as we drove her for a visit and she blurted out “I hate God songs!” Her mother had become quite devout and was enforcing rigorous religious activity. When she was older, a card arrived with a letter enclosed asking us to sponsor her and her mother on a mission to Brazil. They were going “to die for Christ.” I don’t know if that’s a saying missionaries have or what, but it creeped me out. I did not know how to respond.
When I tried to contact her, my letters were either returned or unacknowledged. When she returned from Brazil and was living(!) in Tallahassee, Florida I sometimes received cards in a childlike scrawl with simple inquiries, like “How are you? I am fine.” As social media developed, she resurfaced in a more accessible manner. But even then, she would abandon one Facebook account for another regularly, so she was hard to keep track of. My connection to her dried up. I didn’t feel able to or willing to commit the emotional energy to staying in touch. I was willing to let her go.
Something changed in the last year. She asked me to come visit her in Seattle. My husband had been yearning for a road trip and the two things seemed in sync. She was now living in a group home. Once I agreed to come visit, she was relentless. Every phone call, she would ask, “Are you still coming to visit me?” And every time, I assured her I was.
This month, we spent a week together as a family in an Airbnb in West Seattle. She had made plans for us to meet two of her friends and to see her house and her caregiver. When I arrived, she was ready with her suitcase and flew across the room into my arms. “Aunt Cass!” she said, with the same love in her voice I remembered from her childhood. I know we are back together now, no matter how far away we get.