This week I traveled to Hawaii to be with my parents and my sisters and brothers because my Dad gave us quite a scare with some health issues recently. He had to spend some time at the hospital while the doctors tried to correct the problem, and they think they did for now.
The long and short of it, though, was that it became startlingly apparent that, while all of us kids are adults, we hadn’t quite made the transition to real adult conversations about what the future would bring for the nuclear family we all started out in.
See . . . it seemed inappropriate, silly, even disrespectful to talk about things like funerals and burial and estate planning before; now, all of the sudden, it seemed absolutely critical. So, all five of us kids dropped what we were doing and made the (very) long trek across the ocean to spend some time together. It hasn’t been since I left for college (a very, very long time ago) that all of us were together in one place by ourselves . . . without spouses and grandchildren there to pull us away from all the strains of family dynamics that weave themselves through every family I’ve ever seen. (We marked this strange turn of events by getting our picture taken together. Seen here are all my siblings and me, left to right: Matt (#5), Katie (#3), me (#1), Maile (#2) and John (#4).)
I didn’t really know what to expect when I got there. I started to suspect, however, that this experience might be really strange on my first day home, when the telephone rang and I answered to hear a voice on the other end explaining he was my parents’ pastor, calling to check on them and see how things were going.
I didn’t know this man; he didn’t know me, but the weirdest feeling came over me: it’s usually me on the other end of the telephone, calling to speak with adult children who have no idea who I am. And I realized that while I can easily make a call as the pastor, I have no idea how to handle things from this side of the telephone.
In my job I very often facilitate conversations in which we talk about hard things no one really wants to talk about, help families sort through issues they’ve never confronted before, offer prayers and practical suggestions for folks in crisis. Situations many people would find very scary have become just another part of my work . . . and while I am always honored to be able to be part of these times with families, I have, curiously, never been on this end of the conversation before.
I realized this when I heard the pastor’s voice and had no idea how to respond. This surreal feeling continued as we talked about all these hard things together as a family-all five kids and two parents around the kitchen table. Again, having sat in on many conversations like the one we had, I was wholly unprepared for the grief and pain and tears, feelings of inevitability and resolve, of being the victim of circumstances rather than the facilitator of the conversation.
This all made me think that I will work extra hard to be present and aware of what families are experiencing next time I find myself back on familiar ground, sitting around THEIR kitchen tables helping them talk about all the things they’ve been avoiding for years.
And for those with whom I have been too clinical . . . I apologize. I never saw things before . . . from this other, hard and fear-filled side of things. It all looks so different, doesn’t it, when you’re on this side?