When Forrest, Aya, and I returned from our camping trip, we were still too mountain-high to notice at first, but there was a heaviness hanging over our house.
I found Tani standing in the hall, and she was quiet, but not in a peaceful happy way. In a stuck, frozen way.
“My mom and dad both died,” she said. “It was their time.”
That wasn’t all. I found Alex in the bathroom upstairs.
His dad had died, too. Mortimer. I held back the shock and sorrow I felt so I could try to comfort Alex.
He and Tani hadn’t eaten. I went down to fix some snacks for us.
While I was cooking, I thought back to the last time I’d seen Mortimer and Mr. and Mrs. Snow. It had been a long time ago, before Plum Day. Maybe at the Black & White. No, it was our Gratitude party. Thinking about that brought tears. I went to the garden, so my sadness wouldn’t add to the heaviness of the house. I remembered how even though Bella has never even been to our house, though we just live across the street from them, Mortimer danced at every party we threw.
Alex always seemed so happy when his dad and sister were both here, dancing with all of us and our crazy friends.
Mortimer was a good guy. A good dad. He’d been a good friend to me and Uncle Jacob for as long as we’d known him, which was pretty much my entire life.
Now Tani’s parents, on the other hand, were a different story. Her mom was evil or mean or one of those things or maybe even both of those things, and her dad was simply distant. Tani had an unhappy home. She spent nearly every day at our house, before and after school, until she was a teen.
I’d seen her go through such a transformation after she moved in with us here in this big house. She thrives on good vibes, and the change in her has been like transplanting a zinnia from a shady, damp corner, into a sunny, loamy plot.
Still, I’ve often read that grief can be tougher when people lose those with whom they’ve had troubled relationships.
We brought our snacks into the living room and sat on the couch watching cooking shows. Sometimes, it feels easier to open up when there’s the background noise of a tv show, and we can look at the screen, instead of facing the raw fact of each other’s faces.
Alex opened up first.
“Mother hasn’t even been over,” he said. “I went there once. She was out. Cassie said she was Don’s.”
“You know,” I said, “my friendship with your dad was always individual. That is, I was friends with him separate from being good friends with you and separate from what the rest of your family thought about me. It’s like me and Uncle Jacob were just friends with your dad as his own person, not as an extension of your family.”
“I like thinking about my dad as an individual,” Alex said. “Not as my dad or my mom’s husband, but as a man. He was a good man.”
We all agreed with that.
“He told me a few times that he was proud of me,” Alex said. “He said he knew that I knew that Mother didn’t approve of the lifestyle and career I’d chosen, but he was proud of me for doing what I wanted, not what she wanted for me. He said that he could see I was happy and fulfilled, and that being a chef brought people joy and was a worthwhile endeavor, especially for someone who loved food as much as I did. He said he didn’t care if I got married or had kids. He felt the warmth of family every time he came over here, and he was always glad that you and I decided that this was how we wanted to live and that we were doing this.”
Tani didn’t want to talk about her feelings right then. We just finished our snack and enjoyed being together.
Emma told me that Tani had opened up with her and Gray that morning. She told them that her home was never happy.
Growing up, it didn’t matter what she did. Her mom was only happy when she was unhappy. So if she came home from school happy, her mom would yell at her until she was unhappy, and then her mom would feel happy. And her dad never stood up for her. He just checked out. She gave up trying to change or understand her mom long ago, and now, she’d never have the chance to understand her or the chance to forgive her dad for not trying to make it better.
Later that day, I saw Gray and Tani together in the sun room. Gray had found something on the web to show her.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of SimTrait Disorder (DSMSTD) described this one trait that predicted Tani’s mother’s behavior.
“It says here that this particular trait causes Sims to get pleasure and to feel happy when they are around the unhappiness of others. It wasn’t you, Tani. It was your mom! She had this trait. And it says that it’s particularly troubling for those with the ‘good’ trait. You’ve got that trait, don’t you, Tani?”
Tani looked on as Gray read testimony after testimony from Sims with that trait and testimonies from their children and spouses. As Tani heard her family’s story told in a hundred different variations, she gradually began to soften. The goodness in her reached out, and she began to feel compassion and understanding for her mom and forgiveness for her dad.
“It’s not too late,” she said. “I couldn’t see it when she was here, always making me feel bad. But I can see it now.”
She remembered a time when she’d been happy with them. It was when they came over for our first Black & White.
“Cassie was there,” she said. “And Uncle Jacob and I were playing chess in the hallway. And Mom and Dad stood behind me, and I was happy. And for once, Mom was happy that I was happy. I felt like I was in a real family, with Alex’s sister there, and your uncle, Cathy. And then Mom and Dad. For just that moment, it felt like a happy extended family.”
“It wasn’t all bad,” she said.
When Alex went to work that evening, he looked confident. “I feel like I’m carrying on something my dad was proud of,” he said, “doing something that I’m passionate about.”
Alex’s confidence spread to the rest of us.
Emma came home from her job as a musician with a promotion.
Aya ran with joy on the treadmill, making progress towards her aspiration.
I spent more time with Uncle Jacob, realizing that even he won’t be here forever.
A few days later, Tani was the first one up. When I came into the kitchen, she was seated at the table, breakfasting on the chocolate chip cookies I’d baked yesterday. She looked happy. And I felt happy. And while I scrambled up some eggs, both of us soaked up the good vibes of happiness and home and family.
Family isn’t just what you’re born into. It’s what you create from the connections you feel with the people you choose to live your life with–the people that find joy in your own happiness and well-being.