My niece got married last Friday. The autumn sun hung low in the sky. The New England fall colors washed the leaves of the trees in beautiful reds, yellows and various shades of orange. The tiny lakeside chapel was filled with family and friends, some of whom I knew and many I did not.
My brother walked my niece down the aisle. He looked so happy, dressed in a dark suit, his daughter’s arm tucked firmly under his. He kissed her on the cheek and put her hand in the hand of her husband to be and then went to sit down next to his wife of 31 years. Her older brother read a passage from The Alchemist. It was, he said, a favorite of both of theirs. Their younger brother gave a tender toast and spoke of his deep love for his sister and as the music played, my brother twirled his daughter around the dance floor.
And through all of this, I cried.
You see that day would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. We had been caring for her for nine years. When she died in January, her memory atrophied with Alzheimer’s, she had already been gone for a very long time. It had been years since she recognized our faces. Knew our names. Spoke words that made any sense. The years of painful conversations and difficult decisions had left our family fractured and our relationships strained. There had been hurt feelings. Broken promises. Mistrust. There were many days that I wondered what, if anything, could be salvaged. And many days that I wasn’t sure I wanted to try.
I sat and looked out at the lake. I had been thinking about my mother since I’d woken up that morning. I wished she could have been there with us. That they could have been there, the way my grandparents were at my wedding.
I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I had last seen my niece and nephews. When my parents were alive, we’d gathered each year at their house on Sanibel Island. Nana and Grandpa would stock the house full of food. The kids would spend days on the beach building sand castles and jumping waves and then, as the sun began to set, we would all sneak into a nearby resort and take turns sliding down the big nautilus shell slide. In the evenings the siblings would sit around the table drinking wine and reminiscing about our childhood trips to Europe, or laughing over inside jokes that somehow seemed just as funny even years later. Our lives had taken us in different directions but every year we’d come back for one week to be together. To be a family. But after dad died and mom got sick, all that changed. We sold the house in Sanibel and with it, the ties that held us together.
I watched, that night, as my kids talked to their cousins. They huddled together, their grown up bodies dressed in suits and ties, held together by an invisible bond. They were no longer the children they once were. Now they lived in the same cities. Worked long hours trying to find their way in the world. Maybe they could get together for dinner or drinks? “We’re going to have you over,” my niece told my youngest. I hoped they would.
When I was younger, my mother had a set of rules that she raised us by. Of all of them, the most important one was this. Family is the most important thing you will ever have. Friends may come and go, but family is forever.
The evening was beautiful. We ate and danced and laughed together. I put my arms around my brother at the end of the night. “Thank you for including us in this celebration.” I said. I choked out the words through my tears. I’d been hanging on to hurt feelings for so long. It was time to let go.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for coming all this way to celebrate with us. I know it wasn’t easy. It means a lot.”
I settled in my seat on the plane, getting ready to fly back home. I closed my eyes and flipped through the images of the weekend, replaying the songs from my brother’s ‘80’s playlist. As the engines began to whir, I mentally danced along to Rock Lobster and thought once again, of my mother. In the months since she’d died I’d been feeling a responsibility I was just beginning to understand. They were no longer here to hold us together. It was our turn now. It was time to find our way back to each other. Because in the end, family is forever.