My brother Hart died a few days ago. We don't know exactly when, or even what happened. He lived alone and apparently died in his sleep. He had been unwell much of his life, having had a brain injury at age eight with significant sequelae, but no one thought his life was threatened by his health issues. It seems he truly did just go to sleep and not wake up, and I'm thankful he had an easy death. I hope, for my own peace of mind, that I'll soon hear the results of his autopsy.
I'm one of six siblings. I'm the second child and the eldest girl (we're boy girl boy girl boy girl). Hart was the next child after me. I had not seen him in a long time.
I was disowned over 30 years ago when I came out at age 19. My parents have been completely intransigent for all that time, insisting that all extended family members shun me as well. Most have complied.
I'm not the only one my parents have banned from contact with them and theirs. Of the six of us "kids" three have no relationship at all with our parents, and our parents have made great efforts to deny our existence. For example, they removed all pictures of me from their house when they cut me off. S., my youngest sister (15 years younger than me) corresponded with me secretly during high school. She's now in the estranged category herself. I feel like we are in two "camps" - the Mom-and-Dad Camp and the Banned Camp. I hate that, but I hated it more when I was in a camp by myself.
It’s a difficult time for everyone in our family, I’m sure. Death is always fraught, and our family situation makes it more so. I'm sure that's true for everyone in the family, but being unwelcome at your own brother's funeral is a particular kind of "fraught", I think. Other complications include not knowing how or even when Hart died, as of yet, and that the funeral occurred on Doran’s 18th birthday and his day of death may have been S’s birthday.
Neither S. nor I had had a real relationship with Hart for most of our adult lives, but we had both heard from him from time to time. For me it has been years; S. had spoken with him quite recently. I think our feelings of loss are very complicated, but we both did feel a strong sadness at the news of Hart's death, complicated by anxiety and confusion about what to do to mark this sad milesone, given the difficult family situation.
S. and I discussed mourning rituals with each other, with our partners, with friends, and with our respective rabbis and decided what we each felt we wanted to/needed to do. For both of us that included going to the funeral, although we did know we were not welcome. I feel strongly that we did not choose to go to make trouble, or to cause anyone discomfort. We chose to go because we needed to be part of this ritual.
I, at the suggestion of my rabbi, called my parents’ rabbi in advance of the funeral and let him know what the family dynamics were like, so that he could respond appropriately. I had a couple of conversations with him and by the second one he had spoken to my mother and my acknowledged siblings (my father’s dementia is quite profound, so he wasn’t really part of the conversations) so we had a better idea of what to expect at the funeral.
S and I had both last seen our parents at our Uncle Ian's funeral. There had been minimal contact then. S. flew into NYC Tuesday morning. I picked her up at the airport and we drove up to Connecticut from there. We returned last night.
It went as well as could be expected, S. and I both agree. Some people were very nice; others were cold but not overtly nasty. My dad was completely out of it. I'm sure he had no idea who we were - he barely knew who he was and also asked who died at one point.
My mother - who is not suffering from dementia - pretended not to know who I am. It was probably a good clue that I said "Hi mom" but she responded with "Who are you?" When I said "Dale" she looked at me blankly and said nothing. So I added "Your daughter." At which point she said, "Oh. I last saw you at Ian's funeral. I guess you've changed in five years." I haven't btw. I’ve lost and gained back some weight since Ian’s funeral and basically look the same I did then. She didn't say anything else to me.
The rabbi at my parents' synagogue was as wonderful as could be. He was very kind and warm to us, and navigated this mine field so well, I thought. The word we got was that he had spoken to our mother and our acknowledged siblings and "read them the riot act" - saying if they wanted to have a Jewish funeral they had to abide by Jewish law and include us. The funeral director, unfortunately, had not gotten the word, and did try a couple of times to get S. and me to leave, but we held fast and told him the rabbi was expecting us.
Later on, S. and I saw the initial paperwork from the funeral home's interview with my mother and acknowledged sibs, and it said "one brother and one sister" but he must have heard something after that because he knew who we were but suggested it would be better if we did not join the family. And then tried to usher us out at a later point so we wouldn’t be part of a ritual called Kriah.
Some of my parents' friends were quite lovely - very warm and kind. It was really weird seeing people I hadn't seen in 30 years - some I recognized, some I didn't. S. recognized more, but it's fewer years for her.
S's friends were just wonderful. D., a childhood friend of hers who lives in the town in which we grew up (and who, ironically, was the conduit through whom I corresponded with S. when she was in high school and surreptitiously contacting me) put us up overnight and was very hospitable (and came and got us when we were stranded due to car trouble, too). S’s oldest friend, M., took a day off of work and drove quite a distance to come (and got enlisted as a pall bearer - I think they hadn't thought this one through). He and his mother took us out to lunch afterwards and were just totally wonderful through the whole thing.
My ex was also very kind about the whole thing. She gave me no trouble about taking the kids Tuesday night, offered for me to take the car (it was our car jointly; she basically has kept it but we never worked out a division of property so we both just call it “the car”), and then left a very sweet note in it along with water and food for the journey.
The car broke down and we ended up stuck in Connecticut waiting for it to get fixed so I missed Zara's circus and Doran's birthday dinner. I've never missed a performance of Zara's before. I had been kind of reconciled to the necessity but then when the funeral was at 9:30 am I thought maybe I didn't have to miss it, so I was disappointed. Plus the repairs cost me $860 which is a whole hell of a lot more than renting a car would have cost. We got back at 11:00 or so last night. I did see Doran and Kendra, who stayed at my place last night, and I gave Doran his presents. We were all dragging this morning.
I am soooooo glad S. came. It would have been a million times harder without her. And - aside from all the emotional difficulty and complications of the event - it was just pure bliss to have hours (between the drives and the auto repair place) to just hang out and talk to my sister, with no kids or partners or other distractions. I don't know when we last did that. I love the family time we have together (like when we saw them in Winnipeg over the summer) but one-on-one is special and in pretty short supply.
Okay, we got a little punchy on the way home and came up with this:
Dysfunctional Family Funeral Mastercard Commercial
Long distance phone calls to your parents' rabbi who doesn't know you
Airplane ticket from Minneapolis: $734.60
New black Shoes: $35
Car repairs after it broke down at the funeral: $860
Your mother pretending she doesn't know who you are: Priceless
I'm using my Pleasant View icon. Pleasant View Cottage at Winnipeg Beach was my grandparents' beach house and it's a place that all six Rosenberg kids have had happy times at. I said to S. that it seems so strange to think there aren't six of us anymore, that I feel like I won't know how to answer the next time someone asks me how many brothers and sisters I have. She said, "I've never known how to answer that question my whole life." She was a small child when I disappeared, and doesn't really remember the time before. Her answer made me so sad for her, and indeed for all of us.
For those who have read my fiction, this might give a little insight into how and why family estrangement is a theme that I explore. FWIW, here is my stance: I am subject to family estrangement but I don't participate in it. I don't in any way condone or contribute to cutting people out of their family's lives. Anyone who wants contact with me is always welcome to have it, even if they have not spoken to me for years, even if they have tried to get others to deny my existence, even if I know it's likely that they'll be friendly today and go back to pretending I don't exist tomorrow (this is the pattern with some of the siblings).
I invited my parents to my kids' bnai mitzvah as well as all my siblings, even those who pretend they don't know I exist. I do this not in any hope that they will change their minds, but because I want to set an example for my children that this is just something We Do Not Do. Banning relatives is a practice I abhor, and it is one that stops with me.