Friday, January 2, 2009

My Brother's Wife

So my brother and his wife and their children spent Christmas with us in New York. This is my brother's second wife, and I was very close to his first, so I had never really given her a full chance. Plus, she was not one to hide whatever she was feeling, and my brother often gave her reasons to be irritable. The last time they came to New York to spend the holidays with us was more than 8 years ago, because they didn't have children then, and their oldest just turned eight. Things went very wrong the last time. I hadn't truly opened my heart to my sister-in-law; the reason I gave myself was that she never seemed warm toward me. But which came first, chicken or egg?

The night before they left, my mom had the bright idea that we should all have dinner together at Red Lobster. I had been to an accupuncturist that morning, and felt as if I was floating, flooded with a sense of well-being. I thought. At some point during dinner, my brother, a doctor, asked me how my visit to the acupuncturist went. I began to rhapsodize, at which point my sister-in-law, also a doctor, scoffed, "That is all just foolishness." My God, I was suddenly and disproportionately ENRAGED! So much for serenity. I can't recall the whole exchange now, but we went at it, back and forth, neither of us conceding an inch, me appalled at her small-mindedness as a medical professional, she appalled at my belief in such quackery, my husband, mother and brother trying in vain to intercede, to minimize the conflict, even pretend it wasn't happening by covering over our snipes with chirpy observations about the food. The trip home was lethally silent. They left the next morning with my sister-in-law and I barely acknowledging one another.

We've had occasions to be together many times since then: We spent a Christmas with them in Jamaica. We also flew home to attend their son's christening on our daughter's ninth birthday. We have both always been civil, polite, pleasant. But hardly warm. I thawed a little after my niece and nephew were born, telling myself that I could not fully support them if I did not support their mother. But it was not until last fall that my heart truly opened to her.

My own mother had fallen and cracked a rib in St. Lucia, where she lives part of the year, and my sister-in-law took it upon herself to bring it to my brother and my attention that our mom could no longer live alone. "We all get to this point if we're lucky," she told me gently over the phone. "We all get to the point where our parents have to move in with us, if we're lucky enough to have them still be here." She talked about my mom moving in with them in Jamaica, since they're both doctors; she talked about moving to a new home so that my mom wouldn't have to navigate their stairs as she got older; she talked and as she talked, I realized her care for my mom. I wanted to cry at how much I had withheld myself from her. I did cry. I had never seen her fully, never truly appreciated her no-nonsense, straightforward approach to everything, never really seen the loyal, capable, caring mother, wife, sister and daughter she was underneath the sometimes prickly demeanor.

At that moment, everything mean and petty fell away and I decided to love her. I decided to let her be just who she is, and love her for just who she is. How easy it became after that! We had a wonderful holiday together. Nothing she said or did irritated me, because when you decide to love someone, their quirks are merely their quirks, particulars of personality that make them all the more interesting and lovable. On this visit I wanted them all the have a perfect holiday. I wanted my sister-in-law to see that everything was okay, that her adorable and high-energy children, 8 and 5, could be in whatever cycle of expression they might be in, shrieking at the Wii Sports game they were playing, criticizing the mess in my kitchen, jumping all over our broken-down furniture, all of it was just fine. She could relax. She was home.

I was grateful for a second chance at our relationship. It was good to have my brother's family and my mom in our home for Christmas. This time, we created bonds and memories worth holding onto. And we're already looking ahead to next year.

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