One of the remarkable events of the past year, a year of connections and new perceptions, was the wedding of Chris, Ben's nephew, to Lindsay Barnes, last week in Colorado. Ben's brother Jay had initially discouraged us from coming to the wedding because it was so far and we wouldn't have time to visit with everyone. Ben hadn't seen Chris in 15 years, nor had he seen his niece, Sydney. I had met neither, except for a conversation with Sydney when she encouraged us to come to the wedding. Jay's perception that coming to celebrate a wedding 30 miles into the mountains of Colorado for a few hours was not a good idea. He was right, but that was before he realized that it was going to be a three-day soirée. We drove four days there and back and spent three wonderful days eating and talking and hanging out and reconnecting and getting to know one another. It was a blast, a remarkable wedding event, punctuated by a Francis family reunion. Ben got to see Chris and Sydney for the first time in 15 years and reconnect with others. I met all of them for the first time, including Jay's ex-wife, Mary, and her sister, Jenny.
Wedding guests were mingling in the living room a few nights before the wedding in the mountain cabin where Chris and Lindsay and some of the other guests were staying. Food had been served and Mary and I were getting to know each other over a meal at an oak table that was a barn door in a previous life. Mary and I began to talk about Ben and Jay's parents, Jim and Alice, or Jefe and Chula, as they were affectionately called, who had died 30 years before. Up until that moment I had only heard Ben's understanding of his parents' decision to sink their boat in Monterey Bay, marking their 42nd anniversary and their life-long agreement to "sail off into the sunset," and end their lives before ending up in a nursing home. "Since Jim suffered his stroke...he is just not able to be happy," Alice writes in a farewell letter mailed to Ben, but addressed to Jay, Mary and Chris.
When I first heard the story early in my relationship with Ben I was angry. His father may have had a stroke, but I didn't understand how they could leave. My own mother is 101 and since she turned 90 she has seen me marry Ben, my brother marry Annie, me and Jared graduate from college, and the birth of two great grandchildren. Even though her third husband was defined as soulmate she has outlived him by 23 years. As I have written about caregiving mom, I have considered Jefe and Chula's choices, a choice that many would like to make but would not have the courage to make.
But if Alice was healthy, as is speculated, how could she leave her family, I questioned Ben. He rationally and patiently explained that he and Jay always knew and understood that their parents were together in life...and in death. They made a choice to die together because they could not face life without the other and they also could not face life in care facilities, dependent on other people. Alice briefly explains that she had been able to ignore "lumps, aches and pains," because of their decision.
It was still an unsolvable mystery. I admired Ben and Jay's lack of anger and bitterness and their ability to extend grace to their parents. But Ben's rendition was one-dimensional. The story the fisherman told who saw the boat go down was one-dimensional. Just like the different perceptions of those who show up at the scene of an accident, I had not yet met those with a different story to tell, a different perception than Ben or Jay.
Mary said she had been close to Alice, and then, there it was, a new perception, a new angle, another dimension to the mystery. "I was pregnant with Sydney when they died." I had not realized how surprised I would be by this new revelation or how it would impact me.
Once again I had to rewrap...or rewarp, as the case may be...my mind around their choice, especially Alice's. In her letter, she refers to her one wonderful grandchild. But what about the other one, Alice? I stared at Mary, tears in my eyes. I was speechless. "How could she?" reverberated in my mind. Another day, Mary said she had been devastated but had to be strong for Jay and Chris. Sydney had vomiting problems when she was a small baby, creating more stress in the family.
Sydney and I had already connected on the phone and continued getting to know each other over the weekend. On the day before the wedding she and I drove alone to Steamboat Springs for a wedding shower for Lindsay. Before we left for the shower we sat on the back porch and talked about our mothers. Another night we drank beer in our trailer by candlelight with her Uncle Ben and I and talked about her grandmother and her choices. She listened as Ben explained that he hadn't been angry as Mary had remembered. Grieving yes, but not angry.
Sydney said she felt an affinity for her grandmother and wants to write a book about her and the family, that she wants to understand the un-understandable. I had observed Sydney and her mother having a good time together, but also a hard time, a karmic journey they began a long time ago with more to come.
I wondered once again, but now with more poignancy, if Alice had seen the future and how her decision would impact those she loved if she would have still made the choice she did. If she could feel regret, would she? I think Jefe would still have made the choice. But I'm not so sure about Alice. But then perhaps that's just my wishful thinking, my mother's heart, my desire for grandchildren, and not being in her shoes.
I choose to believe that Alice would have been looking forward to her grandchild, the beautiful woman with the blue eyes that remind people of Jefe and others of Alice. But something even more powerful than a grandmother's love drew Alice in another direction.