I have a few issues in my life. I have no doubt you do as well – we all do. My issues, however, have recently disrupted my life fairly significantly. This blog lay unattended for many months as I began grappling with them. My issues are part of my story, and I’d like to share piece with you. Of course, doing that will be a bit of therapy for me, but that’s not the point. The purpose in sharing here is to discuss how we can shape our own reality, change our own life, by how we choose to tell our own story, and especially how we choose to tell it to ourselves.
Exactly one year and two weeks after my mother died, my father followed her to the grave. She died on January 18th, 2002. My father was sick at that time as well, and as the year progressed, it became obvious he was going to lose his battle. Just after Christmas of that year my father went into hospice. He knew the end was coming, we all did, and with mom’s anniversary coming up, my dad realized he might also die in January. That really troubled him. It became very important for him that he somehow last until February. As life slowly evaporated from him, that became his number one goal.
I wanted to be more involved with what was happening, to spend more time with my dad, but my own emotional issues got in the way. To make matters more complicated, I was dealing with a failing marriage, and I was a full-time caretaker for my two children who were four and five at the time. My older brother and his wife were forced to bear most of that load, with help from my younger brother. It was they who changed dad’s dressings after surgery, they who kept his chemo port clean. It was my brother and his wife that helped dad clean out the house and make his final arrangements. I was distant, detached, too wrapped up in my own issues. As a result, I wasn’t there when my father died, but I was told what happened in those final hours.
You see, my dad, by force of will, had managed to hold on until the morning of February first 2003. His last act in this life was to make sure his boys didn’t have to grieve both parent’s death in the same month. What a precious gift that was, and how I have cherished it!
Sometime that day he died. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know specifically when. And, before he died, a friend of his leaned down and said “Bob, it’s February first. It’s okay. You can go now.” That moment became an important part of my story, and I would frequently relay it to others. My story. My memory.
But that isn’t quite how it happened.
I wrote about that event on this blog a few years back. I wanted to share my story with others. As fate would have it, however, my older brother and his wife were shown that post, and they were furious. Turns out it wasn’t my dad’s friend, it was actually my older brother who was with dad that morning. You see, my version of the story is focused on my father’s final act, so I didn’t really remember who it was that had told him he could go. That detail wasn’t the purpose of the story for me. But for my older brother, the story was not just my father’s act. From his point of view, that story is also about how he, the dutiful son, was with my father, fulfilling his obligation to care for the parent. And, also from his perspective, not only was he dutiful, but I was not. He rightly expected me to be more involved, and resented having to carry that burden without my help. So his memory of that moment, his telling of the story, is different from mine. It isn’t a one-sided tale of love – the final gift our father gave us – but an exchange of love, where the son cares for the ailing father, and the father in return hangs on just a few hours extra.
It’s a good story. Heck, it’s much better than my version, and not just because it’s more accurate. My brother had good reason to take issue with my memory of those events, and these days when I regale people with my story of dad’s death, I am sure it’s my brother who is there, whispering in his ear. But that isn’t quite my point.
My brother and I don’t talk anymore, because of this very issue. I have spent years trying to understand his righteous wrath. I blamed myself for getting that detail wrong, beat myself up for my failure. The story for a couple of years became a negative one. They way I told it to myself was hurting me.
That’s the real point here.
We all have a choice with our personal stories, to make them positive or negative. The older I get, and the more I explore the craft of storytelling, the more I come to believe that it’s even more than that. It’s isn’t just a choice of positive or negative, it’s a choice between letting our stories hurt us or letting them bring healing. Further, I believe we have an obligation, a duty to choose healing, since hurting ourselves with negative stories invariably hurts those we love most.
It hasn’t been easy, but for this story at least I have chosen healing. I don’t blame myself anymore for my mistake. I remembered it the way I did because of its importance to me. I fully accept that my brother’s version is what’s important for him. Perhaps that includes his anger at me, since his version of that day now involves his conflict with me.
I’d like to talk to him again, but that’s up to him. It’s his story, different than mine. He isn’t responsible for my version, and I’m not responsible for his.
I am working to change other negative stories in my life to positive. I hope you see the value in that, and you try as well. But changing old stories is hard. If you can remember to make the healing choice when you first construct the story, well, that’s way easier.
In the end, we’re all just stories, piles of them. Try to make yours the healing kind.