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What being close to each other means
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Near a busy trailhead in the Grand Canyon, I heard them everywhere. Mothers calling out to their children, begging them to be careful. They spoke in different accents and languages, but always with the same message: “Sweetie, be careful!” “No, you have to hold mommy’s hand here.” “Step back from the ledge!” I watched a woman’s two adult sons start to head down the trail together. “Make sure you stay close together!” she cried as she watched them go. They grunted their agreement, with a hint of annoyance.
I started hearing more of the mothers’ worried pleas after I was implored to be safe by my own mother. Walking along the South Rim, I made my way to the edge to pose for pictures. “Jillian, no!” my mom, Jan, said. “Get back! Don’t get too close!” As I prepared for a solo hike down the South Kaibab trail, she lectured me. “Make sure you take enough water. And you need to let me know where you plan to go and when you’ll be back. Plenty of people go out there thinking they’ll be fine and never come home.” Nevermind that I just spent two months solo hiking around the United States.
But hey, she was right. As mothers so often are.
I’m always so curious about the muscle memory of the parent-child relationship that snaps back into place whenever I see my parents. I’ve long been an adult myself, and I’ve even been a self-aware one for several years. I’ve worked through many of the tender spots of my family relationships. But living a coast away (I spent the last decade in New York while the rest of my family was in California) has a way of softening the sharp edges. When you’re 3,000 miles away, it’s a lot harder to devolve into painful conversations about things that occurred twenty years ago over the phone. Flaws are more easily forgiven, because they’re not annoying you daily from the next room. When I’m freshly back in my parents’ physical presence, some animalistic, toddler tendencies start to fly. I can be impatient, quick to criticize, and rely on my mother to tend to me, though I have been tending to myself for 14 years.
I’m lucky to even experience some of those muscle memories. I revert to my mother as caregiver because she was such an excellent caregiver to me. But it’s a continuing process to carve out an adult relationship—a real back-and-forth, equitable friendship—with my parents. I am sometimes surprised to find how much shadow work I have left to do to heal subconscious wounds. The angry child within me rears her head because she has not yet been given all of the recognition she needs. Sometimes my silence and sullenness is a clear sign that even though I’ve done a lot of work nurturing some of the most important relationships in my life, there is more work to be done.
Knowing that my growth as a person will never be over can be overwhelming. But I also know that living a good, full life depends on it.
So much happens in a year. Last Thanksgiving, I carried a heavy heart with me around Sedona. Being with my mother at that time helped me heal in a huge way. Almost exactly a year later—during which I walked the trails of Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah—she and I returned to Arizona. We once again walked the red rock trails of Sedona, and then the Grand Canyon. My heart was light. There were no tears left to cry. The core emotion I feel now is gratitude.
After the Grand Canyon, Jan and I drove to Florence, Arizona to spend time with my Grandpa Chuck, who’s now 88. Last August, I interviewed my grandfather over the phone, holding back tears as I listened to him speak about his own heartbreak and healing; he survived his son and wife, then lost the woman he fell in love with at 77 to cancer. A few months ago he had a fall that affected his mobility, and he now needs someone home with him at all times. That person is often my mother. Since I last sat in his home, consumed with my own grief, his life has changed tremendously. Because my mom has once again taken on the role of caregiver, hers has too. This was my opportunity to help care for them both, to lovingly cook potato au gratin and sweet potatoes topped with oozing marshmallows, to listen attentively to my grandpa’s stories, to let them rest.
When I said goodbye to my grandfather on Saturday as he stood in front of his walker, I gripped his bare chest tightly. I willed my brain to remember how soft his skin felt. His striking blue-gray eyes looked into mine and welled with tears.
Being with family is not always easy, and it can bring up confusing and uncomfortable feelings and questions. But I have found putting the work in to better communicate and connect with my loved ones is always worth it. As I share a home with my parents this holiday season, I will center myself, tend to my inner child, and remember what (and who) is most important to me. That’s where the love is. It’s not hard to see once you look for it.
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