23 August 2009

Birthday Cards

      Yesterday was a rather unexpected day of upheaval. I’ve mentioned before that remembering birthdays is important to me. There are a number of people from whom I expect to receive birthday cards. You’d think that part of the default list would be family members. In addition, there are certain other folks from whom I would expect to receive them. I also believe it is important to acknowledge others’ birthdays: of course family members, but included here, too, are friends. I know what it means when someone takes the time to pick out a special card and write something especially for me. I also know to what lengths I go to choose others’ birthday cards. I always take the time to write something personal for each card I send.

      Have birthday cards gone the way of snail mail opposed to email? No, I don’t think receiving an email for my birthday is the same thing. Email is too casual—too easy. In my opinion, acknowledging someone’s birthday should take some effort. These are milestones in people’s lives. You want to show them that they mean something to you—that their relationship with you is special.

      At one point in my past, I made it a point to always send out birthday cards to everyone that I knew that had a birthday coming up, even to include people that I didn’t know extremely well, like a new neighbor for example. I know what joy I receive when I open up a birthday card someone has sent me. I want to be able to give someone that same joy.

      It doesn’t take much effort. You can buy birthday cards from just about everywhere: grocery stores, the corner drug store, etc. It’s not as if you have to make an extra trip. You know you grocery shop every one to two weeks. Most folks I know hit up their local CVS on a regular basis. I always mark on my calendar everyone’s birthday that I know. Then, usually a week or so beforehand, I put it on my grocery list and voilà, the deed is done. It only takes about five minutes out of your day to inscribe something nice, slap a stamp on it and pop it into the mail. For me, I have to stop by the Post Office throughout the week as that is where I get my mail. For others, simply placing the card in your own mailbox with the red arm raised before your typical pick-up time takes care of having to make the trip to the Post Office. And stamps? I always have stamps around. First of all, I use them to pay my bills. Oh, sure, there are a lot of regular bills I pay online, but there are some that I can’t. I just can’t fathom the concept of someone not having a book of stamps around the house on any given day.

      So, why am I making a big deal about this? Because it is one of the few expectations I have that is important to me…very important. I don’t care if today’s culture places no emphasis on birthday cards. I don’t care if this is now considered a lost art with today’s technical advances in communication. So you might ask right now…what has fueled this diatribe? Why now?

      Well, I’ve been doing a slow burn on this subject for the last couple of years, but something happened to me yesterday (with which I will go into greater detail in just a minute) that brought this whole subject back to the forefront with me.

      Up to a few years ago I sent everyone in my family birthday cards: my son, my mother, my older and younger sister, my brother and his wife, my niece and her children, and my nephew (and his first wife). Now I’m going to sound like a spoiled child here, but this really hurt my feelings. What did I receive in return? Not a whole lot. My niece never acknowledged her birthday cards, much less the fact that I sent them to each of her children. Now, mind you, we weren’t close—geography primarily separated us initially, but she was still family. My brother and his wife almost never acknowledged their cards (oh, every so often I would get a brief email of thanks, so that’s better than most). And I never heard from my nephew. Yes, it is nice to receive that quick phone call of thanks for remembering a birthday, but not wholly expected. What do I expect? That those to whom I send birthday cards would also include me on their list of people they choose to remember and acknowledge with a birthday card to me.

      This year I received one birthday card—from my mother. In fact. That’s what happened a year ago. I actually can’t remember the last time my son sent me a birthday card (and while I’m at it, he hasn’t sent me a Mother’s Day card in years). I decided to be honest with my son this year. After a sufficient time had passed and I knew I could broach this subject without hurt feelings or anger getting in the way, I told my son that my feelings were hurt because he didn’t think enough of me to remember me on my birthdays or Mother’s Day. Now, he’s not some self-absorbed 17-year-old. He’s 26 years old. His response? Too busy, didn’t have any stamps, the post office was always closed by the time he got off from work, etc., etc., etc. Sorry, those excuses just don’t work. It goes the same with every member of my family. Despite every effort I have always made to let someone know that he or she was special, I never received one in return. OK, so I’m having my own little pity party here, but I’ve finally gotten the message. I don’t count.

      This year I received my very own special twist-the-knife-in-my-heart realization. My younger sister a few years ago told me to never write her any more letters—she didn’t have the energy or the desire to respond. Now, you’d have to know her situation. She has major issues and lots of baggage. When she was much younger, many years ago, she battled anorexia long before most people even knew what it was. At the time, there was a general consensus of the family that it was all my fault. I treated her terribly when we were growing up. We were four years apart and I was not a very nice big sister. But truth be told, I treated everyone in my family pretty terribly. I was an asshole. Everyone was equally treated to my angry outbursts and ugliness. What did I know? I was a self-absorbed kid and, later, teenager. And things didn’t change much after I got older and moved out for a long while. Yes, I was battling my own demons benefitting from belonging to one of the most dysfunctional family units I ever knew. But, as I got older, especially after I became a parent, I tried to make peace with everyone in asking for their forgiveness for the way I treated them. I was getting on with my life and it was time to put the past behind me. These people were the only family I had. I had to find a way to make peace with them…they were all I had.

      Well, I respected my sister’s wishes and ceased writing. The standard party line in the family was that my younger sister behaved differently—just accept it for what it is and move on. She had never really recovered from her battle with anorexia and it colored the way she lived the rest of her life. I wasn’t the only one in the family that she treated weirdly, but it did seem to me that I bore the brunt. My mother’s response? Just give her the space and ignore it. However, I really didn’t think that her request to cease and desist the letter-writing included birthday cards. After all, doesn’t everyone send people birthday cards? A week after her birthday this year, I received something in the mail from her. When I saw the handwriting on the envelope, I was excited. I didn’t even wait to get home from the Post Office. I opened up right then and there. To my utter shock, she had returned my birthday card unopened along with a very hurtful letter basically screaming to leave her the hell alone. In part she wrote, “…you really don’t have to make such gestures because all I want from you is to leave me alone.” There was more written—words that cut through my heart. Now, try to keep this in mind…she’s 48 years old. Maybe someone should tell her, “By God, just grow up and deal with it and get on with your life.” But no one in the family would ever say that to her (God only knows the number of times my own mother would tell me that when I would hit low points in my life later and was wrestling with resurfaced, old memories that brought back hurt and pain from the hands of someone else in my family. According to her, all of the pain I had experienced, and trust me when I tell you that there was one situation that caused me considerable pain that caused me to seek serious therapy much later—but that all my hurts were of my own making).

      My mother actually defended those who hurt me over the years. The most ironic part revolved around the fact that these family members were “Christians,” and that, yes, I was forgiven. But how does that speak to the fact that when I called my mother on various occasions to try to glean some understanding to why certain family members actually cut me out of their lives in a very public and ugly fashion, out of the same mouth I was again reminded of how cruel I was when I was much younger. Where is the forgiveness there? I know that people can forgive yet not forget—I get that. But to have the past thrown in your face yet again as the reason why I was getting treated the way I was is a far cry from what I understand where a true Christian’s heart should be if they have forgiven you. I look back to a horrendous experience I suffered as a five-year-old at the hands of a family member. For years, I suppressed those memories. Later, after coming out of the fog of a drug-addicted lifestyle, I confronted my mother. I asked her why this happened to me. I asked her why it was swept under the rug and never talked about. I was the innocent victim and now, years later, I was only then dealing with the raw emotions that were just being brought to the forefront. Her response? She first tried to deny that it ever happened, but I wouldn’t let her get away with that. Then she said she refused to dredge up the past and wouldn’t discuss it with me. All I was looking for was some measure of comfort, love and support, and the door was slammed in my face.

      To make matters even more clearly defined as to where I stood in the pecking order, a few years after that fated phone call, I was invited to my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary party. I was living far away by that point in my life and plans had to be made to take the time off. Assuming that everyone in the family, far and wide, was being invited, I felt it was fair of me to ask if this particular family member would be there. I had not been in the same room as this person since all those horrible memories finally resurfaced. I wasn’t sure how I would handle seeing this person again. My mother’s response? She got angry with me and told me that I had better not make a scene. I was shell-shocked. Well, I knew how important this event was to my parents, so I rose to the occasion and attended and I behaved like a good little girl. Everything was always about appearances with my mother. We always had to behave like good little boys and girls in public. After all, my mother was the president of the Officer’s Wives Club, the president of the PTA. What would people think?

      I mentioned forgiveness earlier. A few years later, I came to know the Lord as my Savior. I learned what it meant to walk with the Lord. The first time I really read and understood the Lord’s Prayer when I first encountered it in the Bible (I was brought up as a “good little Catholic girl,” but back then, all those prayers just rolled off my tongue by rote), I understood that I couldn’t expect the Lord to forgive me of my sins if I wasn’t able to forgive others who sinned against me. I thought about the pain and hurt that this family member caused me and I wanted to let go of all that emotional suffering. I wanted to be able to truly forgive. I prayed very hard about that and asked the Lord to help me reach a point where I could honestly forgive and move on. He answered that prayer, and soon, all of those emotions just became distant memories. Even writing about it now does not evoke any emotional tug with me. No, I don’t think I will ever forget what happened, but I just don’t think about it any more and I plain just don’t care any more. Only God could have given me that sense of peace. And today I can have a conversation with that person as if nothing ever happened. I don’t throw that experience in anyone’s face to justify how I once felt about that person. I forgave and moved on. That’s what I have come to understand what it means to forgive from a Christian perspective.

      Getting that note from my younger sister yesterday really brought back every single painful memory I have of my family—both as a child and then even years later as we grew up and went our separate ways. We’re not really a family any more. Of all of the family members out there I would have to say that the one tie that binds us all together in some fashion is my mother. I’ve kept a close relationship with her. I’ve stayed in touch with my older sister from time to time, but it’s very limited. A phone call here and there, the rare email. My older brother and his wife are in a world of their own. I think he redefined his image of what family is after he and his wife set up house out West. He never reaches out to me (or pretty much any one else in the family with perhaps the exception of my mother); I’ve always been the one to initiate any communication. And you’ve already learned that I have been excommunicated from my younger sister. And forget about extended family members. Oh, my niece and nephew are, of course, close to my older sister, and my niece knows she’s the fair-haired child having produced my mother’s great grand children. But I am still persona non grata in her eyes (I quit asking what I ever did to earn that position—again more dysfunction—my older sister won’t talk about it and specifically forbade me from confronting my niece).

      That pecking order I mentioned? I think I am pretty far down the rung. In everyone’s eyes, all of the dysfunction is my fault. I am somehow responsible for everyone’s major pain. At least I came to that conclusion when I talked to my mother yesterday about my younger sister’s response to my birthday card. With very few words, she simply reminded me of just how ugly I had been to everyone, so what else could I expect. She very gallantly reminded me that now I was a good Christian and I was just going to have to let all of that go (while out of the same mouth still defending everyone’s actions to me).

      Well, she is right. I do have to let it go. God has blessed me this year quite extraordinarily. I received from Him a very personal miracle that saw me through the worst situation I ever had to deal with when I was suddenly laid off with a 60-day notice in May. I got to experience what it truly meant to just simply trust in God. I had no idea how I was going to survive being unemployed, but I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going through this journey alone. I knew God loved me and only wanted the best for me. Even knowing that I faced losing everything, all I wanted was to do what was God’s will for me in my life. If that meant losing everything, so be it. All I had was my trust in Him. My miracle? 55 days into that 60-day notice God blessed me with another job, one that was better than the one I lost.

      Yes, today I am hurting. My emotions are raw. My worldly reaction is to spurn away everyone in my family. But that will only hurt me in the long run. If I choose that road to walk down, I am letting Satan rob me of all of the joy I received from the incredible blessing God bestowed upon me. God will see me through this pain. He will heal my heart. He will show me yet again how to forgive the unforgivable. My concept of family will change. I may not have much of an earthly family anymore, but I have something far greater. I am a child of God, and I am part of His family. There is nothing greater.

      And birthday cards? Well, I have to learn to lower my expectations. There will be many who won’t be receiving cards from me anymore, but I can live with that. God knows my birthday even before He created me. That’s good enough for me.©2009

No comments:

Post a Comment