Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Hard Truth

Jill, Susie and me at Christmas with our dolls.*

It doesn't seem that long ago since my cousins and I were playing in my grandparents' basement, back bedroom, yard and anywhere else we could wander. Jill, Susie and me. But when I do the math I realize Just. How. Long. It. Has. Been.

At any family gathering you could count on us finding each other and spending hours playing. In those days it seemed like we would always be together. We daydreamed of our future weddings, the children we would have, the houses we would live in and the clothes we would wear.

Today, my cousin Jill is lying in the critical care unit at our local hospital, where she has been for a week and a half. She is doing great, making progress, and they expect a full recovery, but it will be a long, hard process.

She went headfirst off a snowmobile last Saturday night and was life-flighted from Fort Dodge to Des Moines. She has bruising, facial fractures and swelling, but nothing else was broken. They kept her under sedation to keep her from the unimaginable pain for the first few days as her body healed from the trauma. As they wean her from the sedation, her family is beginning to see signs of her personality shine through, making faces when people talk and asserting her strong-willed personality in response to the nurse's directions.

Aunt Sandy, Jill (6) and me (4).*

Jill was the closest thing I had to a sister growing up. I was the oldest of three, with two little brothers, and time with other girls was a precious treasure to me. Jill was older by two years and I looked up to her. When I would visit my grandparents' house, an overnight stay at my Aunt Sandy's to play with Jill was one of my top priorities. Jill introduced me to Friday Night Videos, orange push-pops, and a host of names for colors I had no idea existed ... when dreaming of dress colors the most creative colors I could come up with were"blue" or "pink". Jill dreamed of "teal" and "fuchsia".

Her life, on the farm, was light years away from my city-girl world, and I loved exploring, riding the pony when they had one around, and spending days in the sun. At night we would camp out in the living room, watch TV until late and then talk until Jill wanted to sleep, at which point I would be unable to stop giggling until she was so mad that I gave in.

Jill, me, Susie*

There were years when our age difference was of little significance and others when it was a strain for Jill to entertain her much younger cousin who wanted to play makeup and Barbies. To me, always, she was special, and I looked forward to seeing her.

When I came home from college or teaching in California (my memory fails me) I remember an exchange we had. I -- trying to reconnect after 10-ish years of life in between, trying to pick up where we left off, eager to reminisce about our girlish ways -- jumped right in, unloading my life of late.

But I did not meet with the warm exchange I anticipated. In place of the giggling, warm cousin I knew was a wall so thick my best efforts could not penetrate.

The 10 years in-between had wounded my cousin in ways I had not anticipated. As Jill began to talk, her words stunned me. In her direct, no-nonsense manner, Jill was one of the first and most honest people to tell me how my choices and actions had affected her.

You see, in the years in between I had made a choice. At 12 years old I bent to the manipulation and pressure of my father and step-mother and abandoned my family ... my mother, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I traded a life of unconditional love and acceptance for stuff and a false illusion of a better life -- fewer worries and responsibilities, all the little luxuries my mother could not provide, and most of all, the coveted love and acceptance of my father and temperamental step-mother.

Those years were hard. They stole a piece of all of us, and I still grieve for the little girl who learned, once and for all, that no manner of making the choices my father and stepmother wanted could earn their love. Not refusing to see my mother for visitation. Not allowing them to tape record and listen to my calls to make sure I said the things they prepped me to say. Not sitting through their endless "talks" where they explained my mother's every ill and flaw, striving to convince me she was unworthy of my time. Not bearing the onslaught of angry words when my choices were not acceptable or being the scapegoat for every ill. Not getting good grades, making good choices, going to church or keeping the house perfectly.

Nothing.

And don't misunderstand me, I fully comprehend the onus of responsibility on the adults involved. While that stepmother has not been a part of my life since college, the ghosts of those days still haunt my relationship with my father.

But that day I came to understand what happened on the other side. While I was fighting to stay whole, those who had loved me and never hurt me watched me separate myself and spew venomous lines, designed to injure.

Unlike the adults in my life, Jill didn't have the luxury of perspective to help her excuse or forgive.

Jill, too, had been just a child. And for reasons she could not understand, I chose the people who had hurt our family to "side" with. I left.

As her words pierced my heart, I scrambled to defend myself, to draw her into the reality I had experienced.

And it wasn't until much later that I realized how wrong that was.

She did not need to better understand MY perspective.

I had hurt her.

She needed me to admit that, to own it and to apologize.

And I didn't. I was still so close to all of it and wounded. I didn't have the perspective or the maturity.

In the years since I've seen Jill at family functions. We've exchanged pleasantries. Smiles. Greetings.

But I've been missing my cousin, my first best friend, ever since.

As life has carried on, I've convinced myself this is a reality of growing up. Growing apart.

Jill's accident last week made me reconsider that conclusion. I miss my cousin. My heart breaks watching her mom, dad, sister, nieces and nephew hold time while they wait for her to recover and hope the amazing woman they knew returns.

And I hope she does, too.

I still need her, and I've got a few things to talk about, the next time we get a chance.

So, here's to Jill and her return to the spirited, no nonsense woman we know and love.

*A special thanks to my mother for finding and scanning in the images for this post.