I have thought long and hard about where and whether to publish this piece. In many ways, it is so deeply personal, so familial, that to post it here on my (granted, near-desolate) blog seems scandalous. And yet, I feel that I am not only writing to my family, but to families writ large. However barbed my words are, here, they come from a place of love. I have learned, the hard way, that love is not just about comfort and soothing. Sometimes love is hard. Sometimes love has to speak hard truths. This is one of those times.
I may well alienate many members of my family by posting this. But the point is, I am already alienated. I am already excluded. And perhaps that is what I needed in order to be able to speak.
When I was one, Patricia Scott – Grandma Pat – decided to retire after a foot injury because she wanted, among other things, to be able to spend time with her grandchildren. When I was in high school, commuting from Boulder to Denver and back, I not infrequently stayed at her house instead of making the long trek all the way home. In her quiet, but firm way she was an inspiration for me. In retrospect, the path I have followed mirrors hers: Like her, I attended Stanford; like her, I hold a degree in Education; like her, I teach English.
Pat Scott was caring and fiercely intelligent, and while I could never have articulated it as a child, now as an adult I can see why she must have been an incredible educator. She was organized, always, and had a strong sense of right and wrong. I can imagine her – perhaps I channel her myself, these days – saying “no” to an 8th grader in a way both that stops him from overstepping boundaries and still reminds him that she cares, that discipline is not for discipline’s sake, but in order to help students grow and to become disciplined.
I saw my grandmother for the last time less than a week before she died. Her Alzheimer’s was about as advanced as it gets, her memory all but gone. Still, she had moments of recognition, and for a time she smiled and held my hand as she slept.
Of course, Alzheimer’s is a brutal disease precisely because it eats away the mind while leaving the body intact. Pat’s brilliance eroded over years. It’s hard to say exactly when she stopped being the woman she once was, but by the end she was unthinkably far removed from the Pat I remembered growing up, the larger than life grandmother who, despite being Colorado born and raised, was almost British in her comportment and dignity. Her family nickname – “The Baroness” – was well earned. Perhaps there was something mocking in calling her that, but there was also a great deal of respect.
Pat Scott lived a rich, full life. I cannot say that I am sad for her loss, exactly, as we all must die and Pat’s time had come. She experienced and achieved so much that it’s hard not to smile, when you think about it. In this case, at least, the universe was fair. A good woman, a dedicated educator, a brilliant thinker had her time on this earth and enjoyed it. She made the most out of her sisterhood, adored her grandchildren, and even rekindled her own mother’s passion for the piano in her later years. Hers was a life well-lived, a life worth celebrating, and I am honored to have her as a grandmother and an inspiration.
This is where this piece of writing should end. But it can’t, because Patricia Scott’s death is not self-contained. You see, my grandmother’s funeral was two weeks ago, and I was not invited.
She would have wanted me to be there. She was my grandma, and I was her grandson, and although we weren’t always all that close, when we did spend time together we had a kinship – owing to our many similarities – which I only now understand.
And yet, I wasn’t told about my grandmother’s funeral, even though I visited her less than a week before her death. I wasn’t told even though it was on a weekend when I easily could – and would – have flown over from California to attend. I wasn’t told, and all of the reasons for why that I can imagine are, at best, stupid ones. In the grand scheme of things, my being left off of the invitation list for Grandma Pat’s funeral is a small thing. But it is so case-in-point, and so blatantly, obviously wrong, that it’s hard to ignore.
What’s the bigger story, here? Well, it involves all kinds of family drama. It involves my father’s suicide and his brother’s unwillingness to learn from that suicide. It involves a cynical assumption that my brother, my mother, and I are both far greedier and far wealthier than we actually are. It involves decades of unspoken family traumas, of burying conflict under the rug, of pretending to love instead of actually loving.
It’s hard to tell any part of the story without telling the whole story, but I’ll do my best to keep it brief.
Robert Franz, my father, committed suicide just over two years ago. The story doesn’t start there, by a long shot, but it’s as good a focal point as any, because Bob’s death is still the fracture, the center of the spider web of broken glass which stretches out to his brother and cousins and children and all who knew him. There are many ways of telling the story of Bob’s suicide: he was an alcoholic who was so good at being an alcoholic that it cost him everything; or else, he was depressed by his closest friend’s losing battle with cancer; or else, he moved to Hawaii only to find that you cannot escape yourself.
There’s another way of telling the story of Bob’s death, however. Bob was an alcoholic his entire life, and his alcoholism was perpetually enabled – and often encouraged – by his family and friends. The ultimate responsibility for his actions lies with him, but with Bob’s death waves of guilt rippled through my extended family. “We didn’t know it was so much of a problem,” was a common refrain. “I wish I would have done more,” another.* The reality is, though, that no one could or would have done more. To do more would have been against the essence, the culture, the very being of our family. To confront Bob was unthinkable. To intervene was impossible.
* And yet others, still, stubbornly refused to see that there had been something wrong, that Bob’s death was something other than an unexpected and unimaginable tragedy when, in truth, it was a long time coming.
You see, Robert Franz was but one of many alcoholics and addicts in his extended family, and like so many families of addicts ours tries to brush the problem under the rug. Bob’s suicide made doing so, at least in his case, impossible, but my own unaccountable silence on the topic ever since – when I used to write so much more – owes in large part to my sense that we, collectively, as a family, we do not want to acknowledge that Bob was not alone, that Bob was not the only one who needed to ask for help, and that Bob was not even close to the origin of this problem. My own silence owes to the fact that I was taught, from a young age, not to be confrontational, to make peace rather than to tell the truth (at least when it came to family) because that’s what love is.
But that’s not what love is. Love is telling the truth, even when the truth hurts, and the truth is that the Franz / Scott / Lankford family is still a family of alcoholics and drug addicts, and those of us who are not addicts are terrified to call out those who are. “Terrified” isn’t even the right word. “Unable” is closer to the mark.
I do not think that drug use or drinking makes people into bad people. I do believe that there are some people who are able to drink and use drugs responsibly – at least to an extent – and that extremist prohibition is as unwise and unhealthy as extreme addiction. But within this family drugs and alcohol have done so much damage that we must be overly careful, overly conscious, and overly articulate. The truth is, we have been none of these things, so much so that drugs and alcohol have more say in who attends whose funeral than blood. My exclusion from my grandmother’s funeral owes, fundamentally, to this: I am clean and sober.
I’m beyond thinking my family – my extended family – can change. It is too wounded, too wrapped up in its drug-induced stupor, too permissive, too much in denial about its profound dysfunction, too concerned with the appearances of loving each other to actually do so. I would hope some of them, at least, have the decency to feel ashamed at not telling a grandson about his grandmother’s funeral. But I suspect, more likely, they’ll hide behind the lie – the insidious, twisted lie – that they were protecting me, my mother, and my brother from further heartache. Or else, they were avoiding – or postponing, and we are ever-postponing* – drumming up drama and trauma we mistakenly imagine to be best left undisturbed.
* We collectively postponed confronting my father until it was far, far too late.
The irony is that, in playing politics with my grandmother’s death, the deeper pathology of the Franz / Scott / Lankford world has surfaced. Drugs and alcohol, long the bane of the family, are but a symptom of something deeper: an inability to be true with and to each other. We would rather hide our diseases and discomforts, our predilections for addiction, our deep-seated distrust of each other, than acknowledge them with the understanding that it is precisely with family where our flaws, collective and individual, shouldn’t matter.