The Cost of Independence on a family
My body ached as my dad’s enormous shining black minivan turned the corner: a glistening cockroach scampering across the street. His anger spread across the air-conditioned space between us. That tongue that was made to curl into Yiddish instead spoke the stoic, unromantic language that is English. My name left his mouth a hiss, a curse word, a spit on the street. He whispered, “Your brother needs you right now and you’ve been gone. The day after my daddy died when I was 20, I asked my grandfather to come upstairs to look at my coin collection. He was old and in grief and I should have known better. He had a heart attack on those stairs and died later that day. I’ve never forgiven myself. And you will never forgive yourself if you don’t start taking better care of your brother.”
My father’s father immigrated from Belarus to the US in the 1920s along with a huge movement of other Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms, the anti-Jewish violent uprisings. Because I never met my grandparents or great-grandparents on this side of my family, I have to fill in much of this herstory on my own. But I do know that assimilating into white gentile US culture was brutal for my family. I imagine that my ancestors from Eastern Europe knew how to sustain multi-generational homes and take care of the elderly and the sick. They were poor: brick layers and tailors and farmers. I’m sure they didn’t send the sick or the elderly into nursing homes like we wealthy and middle class folks do in the US. My family also internalized much of the scapegoating and xenophobia and turn this oppression against each other. We are very critical and brutal with one another.
My upbringing would have seemed quite foreign to my ancestors, I imagine. I was raised in a competitive, individualistic US culture in Marin County. Never in my schooling did anyone mention how to take care of sick family members or of the elderly. It was assumed where I grew up that you send away the sick and old. I was always encouraged to think about my own future as an individual, never as a family unit. This is what Tiny calls the “Cult of independence”- the normalization of individualization and separation from family in capitalism. I’m learning that some people actually think of themselves as part of a family unit- it’s signified in their name, the way they distribute resources and spend time with their family of origin. There is a vast amount of un-assimilating into white US culture that I need to do in order to relate to this collectivist mindset.
When my brother got sick with cancer at the age of 23, even our money, white privilege and health care could not save him. Nothing in life could have prepared me for this experience; and yet, with the individualistic indoctrination I received in this country, it was hard for me to face taking care of him fulltime. I had just graduated college when he became acutely ill. I was terrified of him dying or never fully recovering. My parents unraveled so quickly and I could no longer recognize anyone in my family. I got scared and turned to independence for sanctuary. I got a job in a restaurant and created a social life for myself. This independence was deliriously delicious, addictive, invigorating. I got high off of escape. I wanted to be anywhere in the world but with my family. Anywhere.
You could say this conversation with my father in his cockroach-colored car began millennia ago, before Jews turned white or American and when families only were separated because of direct violence. Jews know a thing or two about betrayal among family members. Joseph, an important Jewish figure in the Hebrew Bible, was sold into slavery by his brothers because they were jealous of him. Even after such a brutal betrayal, Joseph later brings his family back together and repairs the severed ties. He not only forgives; he transcends the cruelty enacted upon him and creates unity.
The cost of this individualistic pursuit was my father’s rage, my brother’s sense of betrayal and ultimately strained many relationships in my family. I’m still figuring out how to mend these relationships now with the incredible void that my brother’s death created. We are all struggling to see past the grief and reach out to each other for connection, instead of using the cult of independence to avoid the hard conversations, the painful apologies and tumultuous path of forgiveness.