Black and White

I used to dislike the holidays because of the family dysfunction. I now dislike the holidays because of the lack of family to create dysfunction. This time last year, we were adjusting to the death of my oldest brother (April 2012) and father (October 2012). I was in the midst of putting together an intervention for my remaining brother so we wouldn’t lose yet another family member to an alcohol-related disease. The intervention worked: my brother went to inpatient rehab, quit drinking, and died three months later of acute myelogenous leukemia (March 2013). That’s how it goes.

This year, my remaining family members remain a bit shell-shocked. None of us really knows how to do Christmas. My sister has a pretty good gig–she just leaves town and goes to her daughter’s home in Dallas to hang out with her new grandbaby. I, on the other hand, will go to Houston to try to cobble together some sort of Christmas get-together for my mother. I haven’t written much about my mother of late. I suppose I should pause and insert a quick update.

In July, my mother had minor outpatient surgery to suspend her bladder. Now that she was no longer spending all her time and energy caring for my father and alcoholic brothers, she began to care for herself. The minor bladder surgery turned into a major medical emergency when she got deep vein thrombosis in the days that followed. She spent two weeks in intensive care, during which time the doctor informed me that a vena cava filter she’d had inserted during a hip replacement years earlier likely saved her life. Even so, I found myself putting together my to-do list in the event of her death. It had sort of become old hat. But, she didn’t die. She went from intensive care to intense inpatient rehab for a month. People gave me funny looks when I told them my mother was in inpatient rehab. I had to pause and explain it was not the kind of rehab my brother had been in just months earlier. From there she went to normal rehab at a skilled nursing facility, where she stayed until the Medicare ran out–three months. That took us through late October, where she made the transition to assisted living. Insurance does not cover assisted living. That’s running about $6500 a month. Yes, I lose sleep worrying about money. Often. But I’m also becoming quite thrifty with my own finances. Better late than never.

So here I am, the estranged white black sheep of the family, now in charge of all things: probating my father’s will, managing my mother’s finances (which includes three houses and not much in the way of liquid assets), and running what’s left of my father’s business from afar. White black sheep, you query? Yes. I considered myself the black sheep because I was different from the rest of the family in that I was the only child of four who did not work for my father’s business. Instead, I went to law school and basically ran away from home when I moved from Houston to Austin. (My sister and her husband quit the business a few years back, and my brothers quit by dying.) I considered myself the white black sheep because I wasn’t a bad sheep. I was different from the rest of my family in that I ran from the dysfunction, rather than embracing it. Upon further consideration, black sheep get a bad rap. I think I’ll drop the “white” from my self-description, and just go with black sheep from now on.  Seriously. Look how cute she is.

Embrace the Black Sheep
Embrace the Black Sheep

All this babbling is leading up to something. It really is. It’s just difficult to go at it directly. My niece (the eldest daughter of my sister and her husband) has a new baby girl. My sister’s husband molested their other daughter for many years until she spoke up at age 15. My sister didn’t divorce him. Aside from the molesting part, he’s actually a kind man. Whereas my sister is a cold, cold woman. It’s all very complicated for them, to be sure. For many years I found it all very black and white. He was horrible, she was just as bad (and maybe even worse), and they both should rot in hell, if only there was one. Rather than getting into how I feel about it now (if I even know), I want to talk about how disturbing it was when I was with them all over Thanksgiving. Yes, I waxed lyrical in an earlier post about how the baby brought us all together. She did. But what are my niece and her husband thinking when the molester holds the baby? Have they discussed with each other how they’re going to deal with grandpa? Have they had a conversation with him?

Dad, here are the rules:

  • You are not allowed to be alone with my baby. Ever.
  • You are not allowed to change the baby’s diaper.
  • You are not allowed to be in the room when the baby’s diaper is being changed.
  • You can’t give her a bath.
  • You can’t go in the bathroom when she’s having a bath.
  • You can’t bounce her on your knee.
  • You can’t dress her.
  • You can’t take her temperature.
  • You can’t play horsey.

How in the world is she navigating around the landmines? How does her husband feel about it? How horrible is it to have this dark cloud over the joy of being a new mother? I did notice when the baby’s diaper was being changed, he left the room. Which led me to think they do have rules in place.

Would things have been simpler if my sister had left him? Would it be easier to disown your father (and in my sister’s case, to leave her husband), or to continue to have him as a part of your life, but erect strong boundaries to prevent history from repeating itself?

These are very difficult decisions, to be sure. For some, I expect the answers are black and white. As they were for me for many years. But when everyone starts dying, you begin to see the gray edges. (I will refrain from picking the low-hanging fruit–making a 50-shades-of-gray joke.) You begin to see the good and bad in everyone. Including your crazy family. And you find yourself wanting them around, despite the bad. Which is difficult, too. Because in a way, it makes me feel like a sellout. Maybe I should get a new boyfriend, instead.


  • Black sheep leap higher.
    Hard as family dies off …and the remaining ones are/make you a bit crazy. Maybe that’s why niece is trying to give kid some sort of memory of “happy family” which you want all kids to have. (But she’s got to watch like a hawk and as the daughter gets older, it get tougher)
    After a couple of years “reeling” as you are, we’re avoiding the remaining toxic relatives and working on new traditions without them….they are who they are, but tired of them ruining Christmas.
    Hand in there until you find what works. Jingle on! And Merry Christmas!


    • Black sheep leap higher. I love it.
      I think I’m feeling nostalgic and being a little silly–wanting to ignore reality. And feeling a bit in limbo–half way in between before, and after the death of my immediate family. And wanting to protect my mother from a lonely Christmas. Once it’s just me and my sister, I will have more freedom to create my own traditions. I won’t be hanging on to her!


      • It is nostalgia -me, too, even though I know the reality. You’re doing what’s best.My grandmother was a widow for a long time and it didn’t bother her – she had lots to do and while hugely fat, she was in excellent health until the last minute. My mom on the other hand panicked at the thought of being a widow and alone. It would have been difficult as my brother and his family didn’t have time for her (although he was the favored child) – Being stuck with me worried her. Things worked out for the best. Hang in there. Merriest of Christmas wishes


  • I’m trying to empathize with your sister, but it’s difficult. My late ex had a history of molestation in his family that went unspoken for decades. I still attend dinners every so often at their house, and sometimes the silence in the room is unbearable when they come to visit. And then I feel impolite for giving the cold shoulder, to a child molester! It’s beyond me



    • No empathy here! I don’t have any sympathy for her either. I have felt guilty on more than one occasion for my feelings and actions toward both my sister and her husband. It is crazy. I’m feeling some relief I won’t have to deal with them over the next few days.


  • I had the same feelings about my ex-father-in-law. He was a great guy and I respected him, except… he had sex with his daughters.
    One dtr would never leave her children alone with him and the other dtr insisted on leaving her children with him. It all disturbed me. When the other son got married, I told his new wife. She didn’t believe me, but she does now. The worst aspect of the situation imo is that he is not rehabilitated. He would victimize another child in a heartbeat if the opportunity arose. The man is a ticking bomb.


    • How to reconcile the two parts. If there even are two parts. Some insist the “good” piece is a manipulative mask. I’m guessing my niece won’t leave her daughter alone with him for an instant.


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