“Do the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask of you.”
— Paul Norell (my wise father)
Have you ever known a relationship was over — at least, in its present form — but you just weren’t quite ready to let go? You know it’s no longer healthy, and that you’re being obstinate by not just walking away. You know that staying around is really just inviting more punishment; your sense of self-worth takes a beating, because you’re really saying, “Your need to be emotionally safe is less important than hoping someone else will change.”
I found myself in that place for a very large portion of my former marriage. A week after we returned from our destination wedding (ish), my ex-husband first threw an inanimate object at me with the intention of inflicting physical hurt. I darted out of the way. And so began a 2+-year process of convincing myself that the relationship could not be saved. I stayed. I hoped. I gave second, third, fourth, fifth chances. All the while, I knew that if I left before I was certain that our marriage couldn’t be saved, I’d forever wonder if I gave up too soon. I stayed through thinly veiled death threats and an increasingly good aim. But ultimately, I extricated myself fully certain that it was beyond redeemable. I had to leave. I did. My spirit lifted, my sense of security and self-worth returned, and I moved on stronger and much, much safer.
That was the most extreme case of finding solace where I could; I took tremendous comfort in knowing I had done all I could, exerted tremendous patience and compassion, and genuinely tried to make the relationship work. I have no regrets. I really, truly tried.
Not even a week ago, my parents and I went on a mission to Mission, Kansas, hoping to reconcile a challenging relationship — challenging, because it’s marked by a kind of emotional pain that I’m not sure will ever fade — with my younger brother, about whom I’ve written before (“Grief, all spread out,” Sept. 28, 2016).
It all started innocently enough. My mom sent me a text message or email during tax season (relevant because she’s an H&R Block franchisee, so taking the time to communicate during the first 3.5 months of the year is a Big Freaking Deal) suggesting we take my grandma to visit Robert in May. (Aside: Grandma Ollie turns 80 in December, and the fact that she hasn’t seen Robert in at least three years (?) absolutely breaks her heart. She said to me recently, “You know, not a single day goes by that I don’t think about him and miss him.” Did I mention? She. Is. Almost. 80.)
I looked at my May calendar and identified a weekend that looked ideal. I cleared my schedule, packed my bags, and drove to Arkansas.
Between tax season and last week, my mom asked me whether we should give him a head’s up that we were coming. The conversation went something like:
Me: “If we tell him, he may disappear.”
Mom: “If we don’t tell him, he will feel ambushed when we all show up.”
Me: “If we make it a breezy text, like, ‘Oh, we’re coming through KC! Dinner?’ maybe he won’t get spooked. We just won’t tell him Grandma’s coming. No big deal!”
Mom: “I don’t want to drag Grandma all the way to KC and then not see him. That would be worse. Do you think telling him she’s coming would make him more likely to see us?”
Me: “There is no right answer here.”
Mom: “You’re right. There is no right answer.”
Ultimately, because Grandma doesn’t do just great in the car for long periods, my parents and I loaded up the minivan and headed north on Saturday morning. We didn’t tell Grandma we were leaving. I’m not honestly sure my parents and I have ever taken a road trip that was just the three of us. We got hotel rooms in KC. We programmed the GPS to Robert’s last known location. We took deep breaths. And off we went.
Saturday night, we went to his apartment. No RobertMobile, no answer at his door.
We went to his friend’s house. Nobody home.
We went to dinner. It was delicious.
We went back to his apartment. No RobertMobile, no answer at his door.
We slept. We ate breakfast.
We went back to his apartment. Bingo! RobertMobile in the parking lot. We were all giddy with anticipation. We found him! We were going to see him! I was fidgety with excitement. I MISS MY BROTHER. He was just a front door away.
He was inside the whole time; the top floor’s two windows are his apartment.
We walked up to the third floor and knocked. No sound. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as it was somewhat early (like, 10am, maybe? the middle of the night, basically, if you’re Robert). We knocked again. We took turns knocking. We pounded that damn door. We were obnoxious. A dog downstairs started barking.
He. Did. Not. Answer.
I sat down outside his door. My mom sat on the stairs on the other side of his door. My father paced.
His neighbor from across the hall came by and showed us tremendous hospitality, offering to let us hang out in his living room, regaling us with stories about what a terrific person my brother is. All we could do was nod and fake half-smiles.
We waited some more.
We waited two hours. TWO HOURS, y’all.
He never answered.
And like that, the solace came, at least for me. We tried. We legitimately did everything in our power. We drove. We showed up. We knocked. We TRIED. I feel like I can’t say that word enough. There’s nothing more I could’ve done, no missed opportunity, communication method, or intervention strategy I haven’t tried with this young man. He has made it abundantly clear that having a relationship with me, with his family, is not a priority.
The solace isn’t exactly peace, but it is something of a comfort. Although he continues to break my heart daily, my lack of a relationship with my brother has nothing to do with my lack of trying. This one’s on him.
Grandma was so sad when we got back home Sunday night and took her out to dinner, relaying news of our weekend. But she, too, knows we’ve tried. We’ve done what we can. And while none of us is happy about it, we have to let it go.
I slid a note under his door expressing my grief, my disappointment, my hope that someday he will reach out and we can mend this giant hole that has engulfed our once oh-so-close, extremely precious to me relationship. I genuinely hope that day comes, and soon. I miss him.
But here’s one more bit of solace, this one both peaceful and comforting: For the first time in what feels like forever, I had my parents all to myself for a solid 30ish hours. What a precious gift. I just adore them, and nobody can ever take away that time together. Sometimes you have to lose something to realize how lucky you are to have what you do.