April 30, 2003

My former brother-in-law's funeral was held earlier this week in TicTac.

Jaymi is the one who called me from her office to let me know that he had passed away. "Uncle D. died in his sleep this morning," she said ... sounding quiet and sad and older, somehow, than her twenty-one years. We all knew it was coming -- he'd been sick for a long time -- but of course that doesn't lessen the blow any, once it finally happens.

"I'm so sorry to hear it," I told her. "He was a very nice man." And then we both just sat there in silence for a moment, remembering this very nice man who was such an important part of our lives for so many years.  In *my* remembering, he looks the way he did twentysome years ago: a strong, rugged, handsome guy with a beer can in one hand and a cigarette in the other -- this was before rehab and Jesus and cancer -- while my daughter is no doubt recalling a much older, frailer, gentler version of her uncle, the version he changed into after I defected.

I didn't attend the funeral, for obvious reasons. (Geography ... finances ... the fact that my former sisters-in-law would rise up en masse and have me tarred and feathered, were I to show my face at such a family gathering.) Even so, it begs the question: what is the protocol here? How do you pay your respects to someone who is no longer technically family, without upsetting the people who ARE?

It's not exactly something they teach you about in Divorce 101.

My brother-in-law was a huge part of my life for a lot of years. He was one of my earliest allies in the in-law camp, when my ex-husband and I were first getting together. He and his wife stood up with us at our wedding. We had our babies at the same time. We took our kids to Chuck E. Cheese together. We partied together and picnicked together and enjoyed the annual knock-down/drag-out Thanksgiving dinner together. Later, he provided me with an early up-close-and-personal role model for sobriety. For more than a decade, my brother-in-law and his family were at the center of our social universe. All of that ended when my marriage ended, of course ... but for me, at least, the memories (and the residual fondness) remain. How do you acknowledge the loss without crossing the line? Do you send flowers? Do you sign the online guestbook? Do you mail a sympathy card? (And if so, who do you mail it TO? The sister-in-law who once called you an "emotional leech"? Or the parents-in-law who probably submitted your photo to America's Most Wanted, the day after you ran away?)

Or do you simply lay low and not say anything at all?

It's taken me a few days to sort all of this out, but eventually I found some middle ground that feels comfortable and appropriate and right. I sent a condolence card directly to my ex-husband -- "Your brother was a wonderful person," I wrote: "Thank you for sharing him with me" -- and next payday, when I'm temporarily solvent once again, I'll drop a few bucks into The American Cancer Society contribution jar in his memory. (Plus I'll be able to remind the Tots, for the rest of their lives, that smoking is a bad, bad, VERY BAD thing, and that I'm sure their Uncle D. would be the first to agree with me.) It's all sort of klunky and unsatisfying and awkward,  this business of paying your respects to the family member who technically isn't a family member anymore. But it's probably just as well that I try to figure all of this stuff out sooner rather than later. After all, this may have been the first time we've found ourselves in this situation.

But something tells me it won't be the last.

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