Love and toxic families

I almost made myself cry last week.

One of my grandgirls, Avery, loves music. When she vocalizes, she does so in melodic tonal movements, and now that she’s started talking, sometimes her word repetitions sound like little songs. Obviously, Gramma wants to encourage this, so I sing to her sometimes.

I have to admit, though, I have become bored with traditional children’s songs. Last week, I changed stations. I started singing tunes I’ve learned playing guitar, including some old John Denver songs. I’d begun “Leaving on a Jet Plane” before I realized what I was singing. Tears popped into my eyes as soon as I heard the words come out of my mouth.

“I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again.”

Yep, that’s pretty much the scenario. The countdown to real life has begun. My plane ticket has been purchased. The girls started transitioning into day care today. Next week at this time, I’ll be flying over the Rockies on my way to the Twin Cities. (Only an airline would thing the shortest distance between Sacramento, California, and Rapid City, South Dakota, is through Minneapolis-St. Paul.)

My heart already aches. I have said it before and will undoubtedly say it hundreds of times in years to come, but I didn’t expect to love the girls as much as I do. That is not to say, I didn’t expect to love them. I did — both because I have a loving heart by nature and because I love Sara so much. How could I not love her children?

But the overwhelming sense of falling head-over-heels into a love that never ends? Nope, I didn’t expect that at all.

How could I? What mental construct did I have for that kind of relationship? What kind of experience?

Both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. My paternal grandmother died before I started school; I remember visiting her — but only vaguely. She gave me orange juice to drink.

My maternal grandmother wasn’t the warm, fuzzy type. She didn’t give her grandchildren cards or gifts for Christmas or their birthdays. If she had anything good to say about them, she said it behind their backs. She seemed to thrive on hurting family members. I stopped visiting years before she died when she told Sara, who was six at the time, that she’d never amount to anything because she had a worthless mother. I had no intention of letting anyone into my daughters’ lives who would undermine their self-confidence or plant seeds of self-doubt like those which had taken root in my life.

If you can’t say something good to my beloved daughters, you aren’t going to be given the opportunity to say anything at all. Period. Non-negotiable. Their lives were too precious to me, and it was my responsibility to safeguard their futures. Everything else was secondary to that.

Sandwiched in the middle of five generations, looking forward and looking backward, I’ve come to understand God’s time and God’s love and even some of the gospel stories a little better.

God’s time is always about the big picture, not just about the here and now. God looks down the road in ways we cannot see. And God’s love is infinite beyond anything we imagine or anticipate. He holds us in his heart and encourages in us gifts which are part of our character.

But God’s love also calls us to have clear priorities. I’ve always been troubled by the ruthlessness Jesus showed in his remarks to a follower who wanted to bury his father before becoming a disciple. “But he (Jesus) answered him, ‘Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God'” (Luke 9:60). And when another wanted to say good-bye to family members before entering into discipleship, “To him Jesus said, ‘No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God'” (Luke 9:62).

Family is a gift as far as I’m concerned. Family is the central relationship in our lives. Family teaches us about the give and take of loving and being loved. Family prepares us for other relationships and helps us learn how to build up the body of Christ in this world. How could Christ possible tell his followers to turn their backs on family?

I have begun to suspect he could say this because the reality of family doesn’t always measure up to the ideal. Families can be toxic.

But, not all toxic family members are like my grandmother. Sometimes family members can tear us apart inside with the best of intentions simply because of value differences.

I, for example, am fundamentally incapable of placing my best interests above those of others or the common good. Recently, when my former employer appealed a decision by the division of unemployment to approve benefits, I opted not to call as witnesses fellow employees who heard me say more than once I did not want a position for which I knew I was temperamentally unsuited or to call as a witness my immediate supervisor who assured me I would not have to take it. I did not want to force them to choose between lying to maintain a good working relationship with their employers or telling the truth and jeopardizing that relationship. Consequently, my former employers got away with lying, with saying I asked for the job and then changed my mind. They won the appeal.

Dealing with the financial ramifications of having a moral conscience isn’t easy, but I operate under the assumption it’s easier than it would be to ignore God’s call to build up community in this world. Still, I’ve had more than one person tell me I need to make caring for myself my first priority. These folks love me and were trying to help. They do not realize I simply cannot put myself first. I am not wired that way, nor does my spiritual journey allow me to act as though I’m the center of the universe.

I have begun to suspect that in telling his followers not to go back and deal with family matters, Jesus was telling them they didn’t have to deal with toxic family situations, with differences such as these. They didn’t have to be torn apart by the way family expectations conflicted with their personal value systems; they could live undivided lives. They could do what their hearts called them to do — follow him, lead lives of love.

I can live with that interpretation of that gospel passage, and in a week, I will begin learning again how to live without daily contact with my precious granddaughters. It will be hard. I will wake in the morning disoriented because I won’t be crossing the hall to lift their sweet weight from cribs and dressing them. I will find myself measuring my days by where I imagine they are in theirs. And slowly, bit by bit, my days will stop revolving around them.

But, this does not mean I will stop asking God to show me how to be present in their lives, how to nurture and support them as he nurtures and supports me. Healthy love is like that. It goes on and on.







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