I had just finished a wonderful meal celebrating my wife’s birthday when my phone started ringing. It was my brother John. My sister Liz, who lives in Australia, had just suffered a stroke and was in an induced coma. She wasn’t expected to last the night. We were devastated. There was no warning, nor any symptoms. Liz’s family gathered around her bed for their last goodbyes. At 1:00 pm the next day, Liz slipped from this world into the next.
I knew this was going to be very hard for the family. Liz’s children adored her. They would need all the support they could get. I booked a flight and two days later, got on a plane for Melbourne.
And how glad I was that I did. Over the course of time that I was there, I had opportunity to spend precious time with Liz’s children that I will never forget (I’m convince the Maori culture gets it right here; the Westernized idea of an hour and half funeral and then everyone goes home just doesn’t cut it). We talked about Liz’s life, her amazing abilities, her wonderful sensitivity and self-effacing nature, and her deep love for her family.
During one meal, my niece Sarah turned to me and said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”, to which I answered, “Sure, go ahead.” “Did you ever consider Liz to be a real sister?” I took a deep breath. I knew we were heading into some deep waters. Before I go further however, I will need to explain some of our family’s past.
My dad married twice. In his first marriage, he had three children – Liz, John and Michael. The marriage didn’t last (due to mental instability of his wife) and for a number of years the children were shunted between their house in Foxton and our family farm in Takapau and then into an orphanage in a nearby town. My dad couldn’t cope raising them on his own (he was a dairy farmer) and nor could their mother.
After a number of lonely years my dad met up my mother and proposed to her (for the second time in fact, she turned him down the first time because she wanted to travel to Europe. Now she had returned). My mother accepted; they were married, and she moved into the family farm. Six more children were born over the next 10 years. I was the youngest. Meanwhile Liz, John and Michael grew into adult life, became trained in their respective jobs, got married and had their own children. We saw them from time to time of course, but I never was as close to them as I was my five sisters (mostly due to my young age and the fact they lived elsewhere).
I assured my niece that I really did consider Liz to be my sister and would have liked to have been closer to her. My niece didn’t stop there however. She then said, “I’m wondering whether my mum, along with her brothers, always felt a little left out. You were part of the happy family they never got.” I took another deep breath. She obviously didn’t know our family – otherwise she would not have made this statement. And I sense right then and there I had a moral obligation to put things right.
So, I told my niece something of what it was like growing up in this “happy family.” Soon after having children, my mother went school teaching. That was what she was trained for and it was what she loved. But it was also at the expense of our family’s welfare. As a young child, I hardly remember seeing her. She would leave early in the day (the school was a 45 minute drive from our farm) and come home late. I have memories of her sitting at the kitchen table at night marking tests and exam papers while we watched TV by the fire. Somewhere along the line my dad started drinking. And I mean a lot. My mother would arrive home and find him out cold in the cowshed with the cows standing there un-milked. She would yell at him and beat him. This happened on numerous occasions. Then Michael (Liz’s brother from dad’s first marriage), who was a pilot, was killed in a top-dressing accident. My dad was very close to Michael and I don’t think he ever recovered. His drinking got worse and so did my mother’s exasperation (understandable, under the circumstances).
There’s more. My mother was a very strong and domineering woman. She had a way of dressing us down like her school students. Mum would say “jump” and we would say “how high?” on the way up. She told us later that she had a very severe father who would sometime beat her. These things have a way of severely affecting people when they are young. Unfortunately, it gets put on rewind when they get older. We would often bear the brunt of our mother’s wrath. Today it would be called emotional and psychological abuse. Back then we just thought this was normal. I thought that’s how everyone is brought up. It was anything but normal, and we all had to do some unravelling and processing later in life. A lot of that mess got sorted for me when I became a Christian. I left it all at the cross. It wasn’t so easy for my sisters.
I don’t want to speak disparagingly of my parents. They did their best and we still have some wonderful memories growing up. And they sacrificed many of their own comforts so that we were well provided for. But we were definitely not the picture-perfect family. We had issues; some of which are still being unraveled today. I felt I needed to share some of this with my niece. It would not be right that she would leave that night with the idea her mum got the raw end of the deal and we got the better end.
All of this reinforces in my mind the importance of talking things out with family members. Liz went through most of her adult life wondering whether we accepted her as one of us. I would have loved the opportunity to talk to her about that.
I write these things not to air my dirty laundry but because I know this kind of things happens in other families. Mine is not the only one – I’m convinced of that. Perhaps there’s some history in your own family (every family has history – good and bad). Are there things that should be sorted out? Are there things that have been buried and need uncovering? Do you have a strong personality? I know that I do (inherited no doubt from my mother), and I need to be careful with it. I see a lot of damage in my line of work (pastoral ministry), that is done by people who exert an overbearing force on others around them. Are there ways that you might have a controlling influence on those around you – your kids, your spouse, or other family members? If you are not sure, why not ask them? Better now than at your funeral.
I’m going to be talking to my kids some more. They are all adults now, but I want to make sure things are right, in all areas. My wife and I were not perfect parents, and we made a lot of mistakes, some of which may have caused some damage. I’d rather know about it now than for them to be talking about it after I’m gone.
Family matters. People matter. Relationships matter. And no matter how deep the hurt, they can be restored and healed. That’s why Jesus came. God is the restorer of the broken.
We just need to be open to it.