Column in The Albuquerque Tribune: Family shattered by divorce and tragedy: reconciling the shards

If love is gasoline, then Christmas is a line of a thousand SUVs on empty waiting to drink from the tank of my heart.

Dec. 25 drains me dry.

It’s not that I hate the King Kong of holidays. Far from it. Generally speaking, I love the beast.

I love making confetti out of wrapping paper. Love crunching my mountain bike’s tires across the Sandias’ flank with vacation time. Love the sappy cards drenched in italicized, standardized, nostalgicized units of poetry by the pound. Love making my credit cards cry. Love watching people go ga-ga with generosity, gentleness. Love it, generally speaking.

It’s a few specifics that get me.

Specifics like this: The death of my birth mom in 1980. The divorce of my mom – technically my stepmom who adopted me when I was 4 – and dad in the late 1980s. The still-unexplained shooting death of my brother, Tim Tumolillo, in 2002.

Disasters like that slammed into my family like a wrecking ball into a building.

The structure stood, but pieces flew.

Some were lost.

Some lay within reach, identifiable but too heavy to lift, too awkward to sew back into the fabric that is us: a family, an American family still going strong.

Most times, I just leave them there as memories, old realities with no right to who we are today. I move on.

But come Christmas, when I begin the guilt-ridden process of figuring out whom I’m going to see and when, I reach out.

I pick up the pieces. I take another look. I can’t help it. I wonder what was, what is, what’s coming.

This is when love-guzzling SUV No. 999 rams a tube into my heart and starts sucking. This is when I tire.

Do I go to Michigan to see Mom, who has remarried, who really is my family? Stay here to see Dad, who has remarried, who really is my family? Will everyone be OK with my brother’s death still fresh? What about my birth mom’s mom, of family No. 3?

And my birth mom’s sister? What’s my aunt in family No. 3 doing? (Or should I call it family No. 1? No. 2?)

How much do airline tickets cost? How much time off do I have? What’s the weather like? Will my connecting flight get grounded in six feet of snow timed to fall the minute I land at the Grand Rapids airport? Will I have time to see friends?

What’s right?

Part of me – steadily fading under time’s gentle nudges forward – resents having to ask these questions, even when I ask only myself.

It’s the arranging, the scheduling of family time. It can feel like trying to yank music from an orchestra of drunks playing chain saws and firecrackers.

I start thinking how much simpler life would be if this and that didn’t happen. What if, I wonder. How many other people in this country go through this, I wonder. With divorce rates rising, I can’t be alone.

But I’m wondering less.

Even with my extended family numbering more than 50 and growing bigger as more of us have kids – that’s adding more drunks to the orchestra, if you’re following the simile – I’m wondering less.

Why?

Year after year of facing the same feelings, it became clear.

I had to make a choice.

I could spend my time wondering over what was gone, lamenting what no longer was.

Or I could start appreciating the time I did have with my family as it was, the time I had with my brother. I could recognize those days – those specific patterns of family life – as over.

I could start seeing not what I lost, but what I had gained from something we all must face: change.

Lament and resent? Accept and move on?

Accept.

Now questions are giving way – especially after my brother’s death – to a simple thankfulness for all of those in my life.

What I once called rubble – what I once saw as the broken chunks of what was my family – I now see as the raw materials of what is and could be.

I have family all over the country. I can go to either coast and be welcomed with a bed to sleep in. I’ve got twice as many mothers and fathers as most people. I’ve gained three brothers, two sisters.

If family is a network of support, then any way I fall – and we all get tripped up now and then – somebody will be there to help me back up.

It might be a brother. Maybe a stepbrother. Who knows? I won’t until I need them.

In the meantime, I’ve got phone calls to make. My sister said she’s going to make the six-hour drive from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque.

I’m not sure exactly when, but she’s coming.

I’ll be here to meet her.

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