Family, heredity, mortality

I’m not interested in having kids right now, as you’ll know if you read this blog regularly. But a couple of weekends ago I had an experience that made me understand one aspect of parenting that I’d never thought about before.

I was in San Jose for a rare family gathering with Erik’s parents and siblings. One of Erik’s mom’s sisters had passed away the week before, so we had all gotten together to share a lunch and be with Mom. We had noodles and drumsticks and okra and soup, followed by juicy-ripe pluots. After we finished eating, my nephew Alexander went off to play, while the rest of us sat at the table and talked. Erik’s oldest brother Brian was the first to bring up their aunt.

Rather slowly, Mom explained what had happened, revisiting a subject I’d gotten bits and pieces of in previous encounters. This time, most of the conversation was conducted in Taiwanese. The only thing I recognize in that language is “come eat,” but because there were random Mandarin and English words sprinkled throughout the discussion, and because I knew what they were talking about, to my surprise I grasped the gist of nearly everything said. But since I couldn’t know the details, I couldn’t understand the way I normally do; that is to say, I couldn’t know facts or exact words, or form opinions. What I could do was listen to the variations in everyone’s tone of voice, watch their faces and gestures, and try to hear with my heart and my instincts. And I’m thinking that in conversations like this, where the emotions are the important part, this might not be a bad way to go about it.

I remember when I was reading Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, and Tim Farrington’s The Monk Upstairs, I was struck by the experiences of characters who had suffered neurological damage (one had early-onset Alzheimer’s, the other had had a stroke). They weren’t able to follow conversations in the normal way, but they were acutely aware of their family members’ emotional states. I think it’s the same way with my grandpa, who has frequently startled his kids by picking up on their amusement, perturbation, or anger — even when he has no idea what they’ve been talking about. And after all, kids do the same thing. I tried to channel that intuitive understanding while I was listening to the conversation at Erik’s parents’ house. I saw the deep sadness in Mom’s eyes, answered by a similar sadness in Dad’s, which was not quite mirrored in the faces of their children. I felt Erik and his middle brother Elbert’s silent compassion, and their oldest brother Brian’s doctor-brisk but caring assurances that the family had done the right thing by Mom’s sister. Brian is a neurologist, and he’s also been in touch with his aunt’s daughter, so that his remarks carried the multiple consolation of his medical expertise, his contact with that side of the family, and his closeness to his parents as their oldest child.

While I observed this conversation, I thought about Brian’s son Alexander playing in the other room, and realized afresh the intimate connections between family, heredity, and mortality. Mom’s sister was gone, but in a way she was still there, flowing through Alexander. That’s a thing about family: in the end your blood family ties you to life and death in a way no one else can. You come from them and after you’re gone you continue to move through them, perhaps spiritually and emotionally, but definitely physically, genetically. I felt connected to this aunt even though I knew nothing about her, other than that she was Mom’s sister. I felt that it was her blood that sat across from me looking so sad, her genes which made the home we sat in and the life we watched growing older before us. Even if none of us in the room had known her, she would still have been there. I felt very aware then of what it would mean for Erik and me to have a child, in terms of continuing the heredity of our parents and their parents before them, and their siblings and our own siblings, and even the family members we’ve never known. I don’t know why I’ve never thought of it in quite this way before, but the knowledge felt new.