"You have no idea what my life is like."
Over the past two weeks, which have included some fairly dramatic family drama, three people have said that to me.
Three people I love and thought I was close to.
Or closer than I really am, I guess.
In the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, they use the term "person" in a specific way. People either have or are trying to find their "person," who isn’t necessarily their spouse, but the one person in the entire world who really, truly gets how they work. In my life I’ve found that my "person" hasn’t ever been one specific individual. Instead, I’ve had "people," each of whom have known how one specific part of me worked. And even though it’s fragmented, if they all added up their knowledge about me, there would be a fairly true image of me between them.
In that strange twist that life takes, though, before all the drama started I’d been thinking about people being close. I thought about something rough one of my "people" has been dealing with, and how she didn’t tell me about it for months—I didn’t, in fact, have any idea about what that portion of her life was like. And when she did tell me I felt all sorts of things: sadness, anger, and frustration for her. But also a little bit of shock: why didn’t she tell me before?It made me question things a little. It made me wonder if I’d done something to offend or upset this person of mine, or if I’d lost her trust. It made me question myself when I’d pick up the phone to talk to her, wondering why I’d been blabbling on and on about my own problems, never knowing that she had that new, hard thing. I didn’t ask correctly, I guess. I didn’t pause long enough to listen. I made it all about me.
So after I found out about this person’s hard thing, but before the drama exploded, I was already thinking about closeness. About, for example, how much I love, adore, and need my friend Chris. Except I hardly ever see her. And there are reasons of course: our work schedules are opposite, and we live, what, thirty miles apart, and then there’s the guilt that inevitably surfaces in me whenever I think, OK, tonight I’m going to do something with a friend. But how pathetic is that—that my best friend ever, my friend who knows everything about my past but loves me anyway, my friend with whom conversation starts the second we are together and doesn’t stop until the very second we leave—that we live a mere thirty miles apart but haven’t seen each other for more than a year?
She’s one of my people but I don’t try hard enough to be close. Even though I want to.
Or my family is another example. One of my sisters lives less than two miles away from me, and another is just one county north. My mom lives fourteen miles away. But we don’t see each other very often, except for holidays and family parties. We never, ever get together for a quick lunch or shopping or anything casually on-the-spot. We are family and we love each other, but how close are we?
"You have no idea what my life is like," we could all peal at each other.
The same goes for my nieces and nephews, on both sides of my family. I know them and I love them but I have only varying degrees of closeness with them—and yet I have knowledge (as the old Auntie) that might help them. They have (some of them) babies and toddlers and little kids I could love. They don’t live very far away either.
And yet I content myself with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and a summer get together.
Part of closeness is the willingness to make an effort. Part of it is the ability to be open. To let that cry of "you have no idea" slide out of us. But it is easier (and far more socially acceptable!) to keep it bundled up. To hide behind the smooth blandness of the word "fine." To keep our heartache shuttered.
Our happinesses, too.
On Monday, I went to a funeral. It was for my cousin’s husband; he committed suicide. As I sat in the church, I looked at the family members around me: my two uncles who were my dad’s big brothers (oh how I missed my dad that day!), my aunts who have each divorced my uncles, my cousins whose lives I only know in broad strokes: the trouble they got into in high school, who they married, how many kids they have. I don’t know anything about their small, everyday details. And yet, I look at them and I see all of our physical similarities. (This also made me miss, with an ache that forced me to walk out of the luncheon for a few moments, J.) We are related by blood and by memories, by our penchant for going grey early and by baggage (I wonder if the rest of them have grown immune to feeling unloved by our grandma Elsie), but we aren’t close. Even though most of us live within a twenty-minute drive from one another.
I don’t really have an answer. I don’t really even have a question, except for why. Why is it that I think I am close, that I have my "people," but at any given moment I could, if pressed, admit (in one of those high, pinched voices that comes out around the lump in your throat) to a deep loneliness?
What it makes me want to do, this knowledge I’ve gained about myself and my "people" over the past few weeks, is draw my own family closer. It has made me weep, thinking about the (very real) possibility of the same thing happening between me and Haley. That we would look like we were close but we would really not be. We should be each other's person in a certain way, but I'm not sure we are. Not even the future but the right now, when we talk only if I call, when she is out in the world doing so very well without me. Which is good, which is how I raised her, but there is still that tiny voice wishing she missed me just a little.
She’s one of my people but I wish we were closer.
It’s always a risk, assuming that one of your people really is a person. Is someone who gets some part of you, is someone who wants to be in your life not just because you’re related but because they have true affection for you. Right now I am in this place where I nearly regret making those assumptions. I’m actually sort of embarrassed that I did. I feel like the drama and the thinking and the funeral have given me a knowledge which I can’t yet name because I don’t know even its parameters yet. Its basic shape. But it is about closeness and being open and trusting my people and being a better person back.
(I don’t want to learn what this knowledge has in its dark parts, which is to turn away, to shutter myself off, to say, "you’re right, I don’t know anything" and let that failure cause more distance. I can’t make anyone want to tell me their stuff. I can’t make anyone else be open, and it is my gut instinct to pull back. To feel embarrassed for relying on the idea that my people are my people. To assume that by being open I have been a burden, and in that assumption draw myself away.)
I don’t want the illusion of closeness. I want the realness of it, the guts and gore and also the brightness. I want to have what it might look like I already do have: real, true relationships. Not new ones, but with the people already in my life. The dust from all the drama, though, is settling, and in the clearness I find that I am only doubting myself even more. Knowing this: everyone has stuff they need a person for. But also knowing this: I am less and less confident in my ability to be anyone's person, because look! Look at the people I thought were "people," or who should be "people," but aren't.
I feel absolutely without the knowledge to fix this.