“You’re a jerk,” wrote my brother the other day in his annual Advent message. “Nobody likes you.”
Back when I took him literally, that was a knife in the heart. But that was before I realized that he always switched polarity. Someone had crossed his electrical leads, his AC to his DC. Hate meant love and war meant peace, a curious interpretation of truth that could have ended civilization ages ago. Or maybe it could have saved us a boatload of trouble.
Thank heaven I caught on to him in time. But that is the challenge that life gives us, understanding those garbled signals from the ones you love.
Once, my daughter, then 13, was battling the trauma of growing up with me, an adoptive father. Her real dad had flown the coop the day she was born. And by the time she was seven, her mother had had a series of flaky boyfriends.
Then she met and married me, arguably the flakiest of all of them. The trouble was that I really loved both mother and daughter and wouldn’t stop. I still do. I never stop loving anybody.
When my daughter turned thirteen, she erupted in a seething pubescent tantrum. She said I didn’t really love her and I would go away. I told her that I always would love her and would never leave.
She turned out to have misjudged me. I proudly watched her excel in college, becoming fluent in Arabic. She grew to be a loving spouse and mother of two, as well as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. I still love her and I’m still here.
Similarly, her mother had married a man who could not balance a checkbook and hated to rake leaves. The leaf thing was a problem only once a year, the checkbook problem—only when I spent money.
These days, through e-mail, we relive our silliness together. They broke the mold when they made dingbats like me. In Shakespeare’s words, we “loved wisely but not too well.” The point is that we loved.
Often we are trapped by our own expectations—or worse, the expectations of others. Not Nina. She didn’t get a savvy businessman who could fix the furnace and change the oil. She got me. That was 21 years ago—so something worked.
That is when I think of Ray, the Korean War vet who fought for Nina’s freedom. He lost his sight doing that. And now, as we compare pacemaker stories, I tell him that I wouldn’t have met her had it not been for him. I tell him how much I love him. I write my own narrative.
In January, a mediator will sit down with Nina’s family and me to sort out issues with her estate. It is yet another opportunity to rewrite our narrative. I am hopeful and, yes, loving.
Given the chance, I will say that I love the family still, regardless of the outcome. I will say that I forgive them as I hope they forgive me. I will ask, “Forgive me for not being what you imagined I should be. To Nina and to you, I was everything I could be.”
You can’t always change the narrative of the past. But you can change the future.