It wasn’t the first time he’d come to visit me in Seattle, but it was the most significant. Raw and wounded from his recent separation and impending divorce, my older brother and his young daughter made the three hour drive up from Portland late in the day on Thanksgiving and stayed only one night. It would have been the first holiday they’d spend alone, and I had insisted he come join my circle.
We were vastly different people even then. He was blunt and sarcastic, the hunter and fisherman type, truck-driving, country-living but with a heart of gold. I lived in the thick of the city and had found a tribe of compassionate people who valued the earth and everything that walked on it. Dinner plans were at the home of my most trusted friends, but my brother would know no one.
It was a loving, peaceful gathering. My friends were happy to meet a member of my family and they welcomed him and adored his daughter instantly. He spoke very little, except to his daughter who drew pictures for everyone and entertained us with her new kitten. The pain that reverberated from him was palpable and gut-wrenching. As we began our dinner, the twelve or so of us each shared briefly about what we were most grateful.
I remember feeling overwhelmed with love and gratitude that I had both life-long family and my Seattle family seated at the table. I’m sure I said something to that effect though I don’t really remember, and I don’t recall what any of my friends said. But I do remember my brother’s words clearly. When it came his turn, he was quiet for a moment. His eyes welled up and I could see him struggling to control his emotions as so many men feel forced to do.
“My little girl,” was all he said, choking on the words as if it took all his strength to keep in the worst of it and say only what would keep him intact, solid. In his new world, recently rocked to the core, he lived now for his daughter, for her happiness.
As the remaining dinner guests took their turns speaking, I silently cried for his pain, for the betrayal he felt, for the grieving of the loss of a way of life he had planned on, worked towards, even loved. I knew he could be a selfish SOB, as could I, but he was still my brother. I loved him without reservation and my heart ached for his pain.
That Seattle circle of friends of mine routinely opened up to our vulnerabilities and laid them out to dry in the light of trust, but my brother wasn’t normally that way. He wasn’t the type to air his wounds, talk about feelings, or show emotion that he thought might be misconstrued as weakness.
But he did that day. He chose to trust me in that most precious of moments, and I’ll never forget it.
Now, many years later, we haven’t spoken to each other in some 23 months. A few years after his divorce, he married a woman to whom I would later became soul-sister close. Our friendship threatened him; he saw my loyalty to her as a betrayal of our blood-ties. He felt wronged. I felt hurt. It doesn’t help that our politics and our belief systems go in distinctly different directions. He thinks I am all that’s wrong with the world, and I think he lives in abject fear.
But I can still think back on those tears in his eyes as he choked out the few, short words that represented life as he knew it changing to be, and I can love him deeply. I can love him for all the many times he sheltered me. Teased me. Included me. Fed me. Opened-up to me. I can love him for letting me be a free-spirit auntie to his little girl, my first niece. I can love him for his obstinance.
He doesn’t really get a say in my love for him. It has its own life, independent of whatever we think we’ve done to each other, whatever hurts we’ve wrought.
And though I want him to know it and feel it, I won’t force it on him before he’s ready. Love can simply abide. I need nothing from it.
This time of year, these celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, is often when memories and old familial hurts come at me full force. I haven’t known until now, until examining my relationship with my brother, what Thanksgiving truly is for me. For me, it doesn’t mean a selective choosing of only the best and brightest parts of life for which to be grateful; It doesn’t mean the feast and the football and the family gatherings; It doesn’t even mean the awful beginnings of our nation and the devastation we wreaked upon a culture that initially helped those who landed unprepared on their shores.
Thanksgiving, to me, means giving thanks for All.
It is a self-reckoning.
I can’t be free until I am grateful for Everything, both what I choose to judge as good and what I choose to judge as bad, both what I choose to love and what I choose to fear, both what I believe helps me and what I believe hurts me. These are choices, not Truths. And so for me, Thanksgiving must be an annual practice session in forgiveness. I tend to believe my illusory stories of wounds and woes, though they are not true. Forgiving and thanksgiving are intricately tied, and that is the key. I must forgive to give thanks. Forgiveness is my salvation and thanksgiving is my heaven.
I had not wanted to forgive my brother and I hadn’t wanted to ask his forgiveness. But that’s what will be done. Our forgiveness will save us, and our thanksgiving will be our precious peace. As precious as the tears he fought back those many years ago and the pain I wished I could have bore for him.
For those precious memories that brought me here, I am truly grateful.
(Published in the Nov 21st issue of the Warroad Pioneer.)