You’ve seen the stick-figure decals, custom made for the rear window of your SUV. The family is lined up tallest to smallest: Dad, Mom, kids, dog, cat. I guess some family stories are that straightforward. There’s no death and remarriage, no divorce, no adoption, no half-brothers or step-sisters.
My story is thornier.
I was the last of my father’s children. He had a fatal heart attack at age 59, when I was six years old and my mother was 36. He’d married her soon after his first wife died. My father was a doctor, and before she became his wife, my mother was his secretary. She was only six years older than my father’s eldest son, my half-brother Allon.
After my father died, my mother remarried. We’d lived in Maine all my life, but my mother and my brother Bruce and my sister Sue and I moved to Massachusetts to live in my new father’s house. He’s a doctor too. My first father used to bring my mother to see him as a patient. Our new father legally adopted Bruce and Sue and me, but not my brothers Allon and Tedd. They were married with children of their own.
Like my mother, my new father had been married before. He and his wife had adopted two children, a boy and a girl. When they divorced, the boy, who was still a baby, had to be returned to the orphanage because his adoption had not been finalized. The girl, Nancy, stayed with my father. He fought his ex-wife for sole custody and won. When my mother married my second father, Nancy became my little sister.
Try putting that family on a decal.
When I was sixteen and Nancy was twelve, she died in a plane crash. My father was flying the plane. He and my mother and Nancy and I were on our way home from visiting my brother Tedd in Maine. After we crashed and the police and firefighters found us, the others were pulled out quickly, but I was stuck in the wreck. My arm was pinned beneath the engine. They wanted to cut it off to get me out.
When I was nineteen, my father told me he wished I had died in that crash and Nancy had lived.
My memoir, Every Moment of a Fall (Schaffner Press, May 2016), is about the depression that seized me in the wake of these events, and about how I eventually found a way out through talk therapy and EMDR. The transformation in me has encouraged my siblings to seek their own healing from the deep scars that mark us as family.
Complicated or not, we’re like a lot of other families rocked by narcissism, sexual predation, neglect. I’d like to think that our unfolding story holds out hope. Not for some regressive fantasy of familial unity. But for the genuine release that comes from linking arms and facing down hard truths together.