It’s jarring to realize that your family is not who you thought they were. That your grandmother swears or your aunt is undeniably rude or your uncle is struggling with depression. It’s as though your childhood is entirely rewritten with these new considerations in mind. How many times did my grandmother pause before she swore in front of me? How often did my aunt slight a family member without my knowledge? Why has my uncle not sought help?
It’s also difficult to come to terms with the realities of illness and death among people you care about. I’m a firm believer that children should know about and understand – to the best of their ability – when a family member is ill. This may be because I was kept in the dark for far too long and before I knew it, people were on their deathbeds. However, while a child can be told about the problem and think they understand what is happening, they don’t. It will hit them later in life, and they will be rocked to the core. I still haven’t fully processed the loss of my Uncle Olaf.
Olaf, my uncle Jay’s life partner, died in February 2012 after a five-year fight with cancer. I’ve realized that I know next to nothing about Olaf. He lived in Germany so I rarely saw him and when I did, it was for holidays and the rest of my mother’s family was present. I was the only child on my mother’s side for years and when you’re a kid surrounded by doting grandparents, parents, and uncles, you’re not likely to try very hard to get to know the almost-a-stranger uncle with the funny accent. I wish I had.
Upon Olaf’s death, Uncle Jay understandably became depressed. I was unaware then, but I’ve managed to piece things together. Apparently he’s always been relatively unresponsive to familial contact, but we saw less of him than ever that first year. The only thing I really remember hearing about him was that he saw Cloud Atlas in theaters about seven times. He started to return to us when he met someone new. His new partner is nice and blends in well with our family, but I find myself holding a minor, deep-set resentment of him; he is not my Uncle Olaf, nor will he ever be able to replace him. Uncle Jay seems a bit better, though, or that’s what I thought until this past summer.
In July I had a minor foot surgery that left me laid up for about two months. Towards the end of July, my mom and I went to visit my grandparents and Uncle Jay at the beach. True to form, Jay stayed in his room the entire time, coming out only for meals. At one point I became incredibly frustrated with my foot and the pain that wouldn’t cease and had a bit of a breakdown. I cried and shouted at my mother about how much I missed Olaf and how unfair it was that Uncle Jay was convinced he was the only one that felt the loss. I wanted to feel like I could talk about Olaf and learn more about him without fearing that Jay would shut down and stay in his room more often than he had been already. My mom told him some of what I’d said and discovered that he was struggling with depression again.
I was floored. Even as a sophomore in college I can still be an immature child so, I’d subconsciously decided that all of the adults around me had dealt with Olaf’s loss. I was the only one allowed to be confused and afraid and upset. Everyone else needed to be “adult” enough to help me cope with this death that was a new experience for me. While I’m not so childish that I thought no one else was allowed to be sad, I’m just childish enough to decide that everyone else has to have processed their grief in a healthy manner so I can continue to deny that pain and store it up until it overwhelms me. I’d also assumed that since Uncle Jay had a new partner, he had effectively overcome his grief. It had never occurred to me that one could mourn the loss of a life partner while dating someone new.
With this new information, I had to entirely rewrite my concepts of how people mourn and continue to live after a great loss. I’ve also had to come to the realization that adults are not the infallible creatures I once thought. They have faults and problems that they can find difficult to confront. It is confusing and has created a strange cognitive dissonance within me that I’m still working to process. What is probably so hard for me to deal with is the massive loss of innocence. When you’re a child, it’s undeniably true that your parents are the smartest and bravest people in the entire universe. They can answer any question and help you through any problem you might face. It never even crosses your mind that they worry about debt or argue with their friends and one another. When you do become aware of your parents’ struggles, and the struggles of every other adult, something changes inside of you. You become an adult.
And I have.
I am more aware now that the role models in my life have problems. I have a desire to be treated equally and to share in and ease the burdens they experience. And why shouldn’t I? Legally, I am an adult by my age alone. I’m in college. I’ve dealt with my fair share of inconsiderate people and difficult situations. Why shouldn’t my family tell me when we have money problems or a familial illness? But this is also a childish view. My parents and grandparents and uncles will always want to protect me from the big, bad world. I will always be their daughter, granddaughter, or niece.
But I am different now. I understand the humanity that everyone experiences. There is joy and there is pain. Elation and depression. Contentment and rage. These are felt by everyone, not just me. On a hot July day, in the span of two hours, my entire perception of the human condition was rewritten, and I am excited to welcome this change.