I had lunch recently with several friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We had a lot of catching up to do: kids, spouses, milestones, travel plans, career moves, etc.
I heard about one daughter who was "killing it" at her job, and another daughter who was both on a fast-track in her career and enveloped in a deeply satisfying relationship. I heard about idyllic family vacations and holiday get-togethers.
Naturally, at our age, there were complaints here and there. But overall, my friends were in good health and the trajectories of their collective life paths were on the rise, if not soaring. In short, family life for each was portrayed as a deeply satisfying journey.
To my surprise, I found myself unable to relate. Don’t get me wrong; I am satisfied with my family. But without a doubt, family life has been the hardest arena in which I’ve ever played: many bitter and anxious moments, lots of sorrow mixed in with all the joy. Had my friends and I been sitting in some "Fiddler on the Roof"-type shtetl bar, they would all be singing, "L’chaim, l’chaim, to life!" while I’d be at another table crooning lyrics from "Sunrise, Sunset" about "one season following the other, laden by happiness and tears."
Perhaps this is because I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering my family - family relationships, family history, family gatherings, family unity - and the overall value, meaning, purpose and persuasion of family life.
And yes, I may be overthinking it, spending too much energy sweating over details nobody cares about, or noticing stuff that bypasses everyone else’s attention. I am aware that my instincts don’t often track with other norms and rules of engagement, which is why I’d be the one singing about happiness and tears instead of a rousing chorus of a Yiddish and Hebrew toast to life.
However, I also acknowledge and accept that the biggest arguments I’ve ever had in my life were with my most-trusted, beloved family members.
The most significant losses have occurred among that same fellowship as well.
The highest levels of frustration and defeat I have ever experienced have come as a result of a family issue - as opposed to a money problem, a job crisis or even a health concern, which would include the stage 3 cancer diagnosis I received almost three years ago.
I’m not complaining. I’m just explaining why I can’t chit-chat about my family in the same way my friends do.
I can’t dilute my experiences and observations into catchphrases such as "She’s killing it!" or even a simple "We’re fine." I understand that for purposes of keeping a casual social event light and breezy, you can’t just throw out minutiae and a blow-by-blow commentary on everything that’s occurred in a family over the course of several months.
Life does have a kind of binary aspect to it: You’re either basically fine or you’re basically not.
However, from time to time, I do reserve the right to claim an experience of family life that has never followed any preordained path, nor has proven to be anything I had ever anticipated as a child or young adult.
For me, family life has been intricate and astonishing in all the best and worst ways I never did imagine. You might call it a blessed crapshoot. Or you might call it something else entirely, because I can’t really label it precisely. It’s been a lot of things. In fact, it’s been everything.