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  • Karl Thunemann

Estrangement Protocols—Part II

Finding a ‘Teachable Moment’ in a Memorial Service

The memorial service for a longtime family friend was itself consequential. But attending provided me with an unexpected opportunity: to step back from obsession with being estranged from my daughter.

As the date approached I was immersed in studying possible scenarios that might unroll. The service was for an older woman whose roots with our family were deep. We had all known one another for nearly 50 years. We were part of a large cohort: Families whose children grew up together and attended the same church and school, several of us living within easy walking distance of both.

I had read about estrangement etiquette at funerals—where family members are alienated from the deceased or from each other. But this was different. This service truly achieved that elusive goal so many memorial services seek—to provide a “celebration of life.”

Because the life being celebrated had ended several months previously, the service was not gripped by raw grief. It was shaped by awe: Our friend had led a remarkably varied life, both in matters of career and personal change. When we met—nearly 50 years ago—she worked for the county arts commission. Over the next forty-some years, she went to graduate school and became the manager of an adoption agency, then went to theological school and progressed to serving several Unitarian churches as a minister. She realized she was an alcoholic and joined AA. She discovered that she was a lesbian, married and entered a different social scene.

She liked thinking of herself and sons as an all-American family. I wrote a poem celebrating that idea, which she kept framed on a living-room wall.

In case we had missed some of it, her two sons provided an illuminating eulogy and life history. So it was all tied together by the generations of “children” now in their 50s and their parents—my generation—who had also, in effect, “grown up” in the same period.

I know how to behave. I would not initiate any contact with my daughter; if I found myself in a group with her, I would smile and say hello, but I would not open any discussion. But we sat far apart. Our eyes never met. I did sneak a look: My daughter appeared to be radiant.

I did not suffer much from mild cognitive impairment that afternoon. The main challenge lay in my failure to recognize the white-haired woman who approached and greeted me warmly.  I neglected my strategy of I’m sorry, would you remind me of your name? Only later did I realize that she was our friend’s ex-wife; my wife and I had visited them when our friend was ministering to a church in Daytona Beach, and later when she was with a church near Dallas. (Our friend joined us on a trek to New Orleans. It was three months before Hurricane Katrina.)

After the service, we lingered a long time to talk with old friends. I felt overwhelmed to realize how much I had loved all these people, and still loved them, even though I rarely saw them. I struck up a fresh friendship with someone I have known for fifty years. This led to her becoming a frequent contributor to this blog.

And these friends were not only from my generation. They were people I once knew as girls and boys and have continued to see from time to time. And this struck me about these younger friends: They were warm and friendly. I had no sense that my daughter had confided in them her bitterness toward me. This prompted me to feel grateful toward my daughter. And even if they have heard her story, I could still feel grateful that these folk—now middle-aged themselves—seem to have a far better capacity to compartmentalize than I did at their age. That too merits gratitude.  And thinking about it, perhaps she has confided in a few who decided not to greet me. I can even be grateful for that.  I am not the only one who knows how to behave.

So, you might ask, what has changed? I accept that the estrangement belongs to my daughter. She can dissolve it; I cannot. I still feel sorrow, but my longing for reunion has subsided. I am more consumed with people who share my life now.  

This is not the time to enumerate the ways in which I still believe I was a good father. But I can recall wistfully experiences we shared after she became an adult. For a few years we often simultaneously would say the same thing, using the same exact words. And we loved cooking together, each asserting the other was the better cook. She was—and still is, I hope—a punctilious cook, choosing complex, demanding recipes and tending to every detail. Whereas I was the inveterate free-lancer, adding ingredients and changing technique as I went. She was the better cook.

As I consider our relationship deeper into my old age, I have discovered that I had unconscious expectations of her that were unwise. At first I decided not to enumerate these here, but this one cannot be denied: I had raised her with the hope that we could have the sort of relationship that I wished I had with my mother. And I repeat: this was both unwise and unconscious. I would try to make amends if the door were open. For now, all I can do is let it go.

Part III of “estrangement protocols” still lies ahead. I have had a glimpse, and it is daunting. But let me not rush ahead. For now, let me be satisfied with the lesson of the memorial service:  We can civilly be under the same roof, even if speaking to each other is not allowed.


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