I had dinner with my ex-sister-in-law, M, last week. My wife has been helping her once or twice a week since she returned from caring for her father. M invited us for a meal, and of course we accepted.
I’ve known her since before she and my brother married in the mid-eighties. I visited them in 1984 for the L.A. Olympics. It was awesome, because they both worked, so I was left to my own devices during the day. (I didn’t do much. I mostly spent the time watching the various Olympic events on ABC. Being a 14 year old visitor to Los Angeles in 1984 before light rail and subways didn’t lend itself to getting into trouble.) From the moment we met, she didn’t treat me as her fiance’s little brother, but as a human being in my own right, whose opinions and feelings were as important as her own.
She and my brother divorced at the break of the millennium. The breakup forms a chapter in my novel The Genealogies. And it was this chapter which I sent to her last week.
She had told my wife that she wanted to read the novel. I, being a writer eager for feedback, jumped at the chance. It was only in the moments after that I realized “Shit, there’s that chapter.” I started thinking of stratagems by which I could avoid sending her that chapter. But, as always, I realized that the coverup is worse than the crime. I sent her a handful of chapters, including the one which features her relationship with my brother, with a note explaining that it would be fine with me if she wanted to skip that chapter.
Most of the year she and her husband live out of state, but winter in L.A. After we arrive at their condo and sit down, M begins to gush about the novel. And her critique centers around that infamous chapter.
“You have no plot, and that’s great, because that’s not the point of the novel. You have a gift for seeing through people and getting to their essence, and if it hurts sometimes, well, that’s life.”
I’ve always valued her opinion. For her to praise my writing means as much to me as anything could. I trust her discernment, at least in matters artistic. (She of course left my brother for her current husband, who’s nice enough, so of course I think she erred in that regard. But life has a way of working out, for the most part.)
One would have thought that she would have slowly ebbed from our lives after the divorce. But here she is, perhaps realizing the mistakes she made, leaving our family for a rather solitary existence with her new husband. When I first emailed her the chapters, she asked “Will this evoke memories?” Now that she is wracked with an illness, those memories may be what she latched onto, remembering gatherings, people, love.
Of course, she was never going to be cleaved from my family. She and my brother share two children. My brother still concerns himself with her well-being. Life is not a black-and-white bifurcation, but a smear of colors. And I’m gladdened that my wife can help her a bit, make her feel a part of the world. And I’m gladdened that I can bring her into my writing, letting her see my work.
The ties were frayed. But they never broke. And they’ve been refashioned in a way. That’s the way life is. Its only assurance is its mutability. People, places, things come and go. The treat is when someone who leaves returns, not the same person, but still intrinsically them. If the bonds are strong enough they may slacken, but can never really be broken, and can always be repaired. That’s been the case with M. Once of my family, then not, now again. Love and memory can see people through most things. They may be the two things which make us most human.