Friday, 2 November 2007


My mother died, many years ago, after a long, long illness that had involved much suffering for the whole family. I was not quite 24.

Suffering can bring a family together, or it can tear it apart.

In our case, it tore it apart, or at least it tore me away. I moved halfway round the world, naively thinking I’d put all that suffering behind me, and started a new life in England.

Meanwhile, my father remarried; Barbara was a wonderful woman, with two daughters of her own, and my then-teenaged sister was absorbed into that new family.

I had little to do with this new family, never felt part of it, and it was never particularly important to me, until my son was born. Little by little, on our infrequent visits back to California, we were gathered in to the family. My son has an uncanny resonance with my father. Barbara became my dear friend, and her daughters became my sisters.

In the past ten years, I have re-established a warm relationship with my own sister, and eventually – only in the past few years – have come to understand and love my father for the brilliant, generous, curmudgeonly eccentric that he is.

For the first time in my adult life, I have felt held in a familial network of belonging.

Last week, Barbara died. I will miss her painfully, but what I am experiencing now is a sort of psychic vertigo, as if the furniture in my world is being moved. Subtly, but palpably, I am being pushed to the front of my ancestral line.

My son and I went to California in September to visit the family. I had seen them in March, shortly after Barbara was diagnosed with cancer. She was still robust then, and in high spirits. Six months later, it was a shock to see that she had grown old and frail, after a course of chemotherapy. The evening we arrived, my son whispered to me that he had grown up ten years in a few hours.

We spent two weeks with my family. I cut Barbara’s wispy, post-chemo hair; she looked very small, but radiantly beautiful: translucent, as if a light was shining through her.

What upset me just as much, if not more, than Barbie’s impending death, was that the family seemed to be fragmenting under the strain of her illness.

Suffering can bring a family together, or it can tear it apart.

We talked a lot on that visit, my son and I, about families – and specifically about how my Dad, who is in his late 80’s, and not in the best of health, would get on after Barbara’s death. I talked with my sister – who is also not in the best of health – about how we could support him emotionally and practically. We talked with my Dad about his financial resources, if he needs at some point to move into sheltered housing. We all talked and talked and talked, and that was a good thing in itself.

Now I am home again in the UK, Barbie has died, and I feel very far away from my father, who is essentially home alone.

I have friends, and many clients, who look after elderly parents. Some visit them daily, some a couple of times a week; some have them living with them. I would be more than happy for my father to come and live with me, but it makes no sense to anyone – least of all to him – for him to move halfway round the world to a house with a lot of stairs, in a strange country with a dodgy climate. I can’t move back to California – as if I would want to: my work is here, and my son, and my Sweetheart, and I love this green and pleasant land, even when it’s cold and damp.

I’ve been fretting about this. My Sweetheart pointed out that I made the decision, when I was 24, to move away from my family: that it was my choice.

But the context in which that decision was made has changed radically.

Hexagram 37 is all about Family. The name of the hexagram is JIA REN. REN means person or people. The character JIA is formed of a pig under a roof, which is an image of a home. JIA REN are the people at home: the family.

The Rogue River Commentary on the Decision says, in part:
Home is the place where we first expect fairness and where we will first learn to trust. This can be a poor preparation for life in the world outside, but at least we might have a few years to pre-cover, in advance of those beatings that life in this world has to offer.

When I was a young child, home was that for me; and I feel responsible for this man who was responsible for me, when I was too young to be responsible for myself. If and when he becomes too old to be responsible for himself, I want to return the favour.

Hexagram 37 also speaks about roles; about all the necessary roles being held within a family, and how these roles interact. That feeling of being pushed toward the front of the line: it’s as if I’m standing behind my Dad, and looking over his shoulder, estimating the heft of the role of Head of the Family; it’s weighing me up as well. I can’t help feeling that I am not only geographically unsuited for the position, but unqualified, unready.

At the moment, my father is home alone, by choice. He seems to be getting on just fine, so I’m fretting less.

But I still wish I lived nearer.

Because it’s not just that I feel responsible for him. I want to make the most of the time left to us, to hang out together, to gather in and harvest the ancestral wisdom that is concentrated in him.

My father used to say that the only thing worse than getting old was the alternative. Black humour -- but it’s no joke. All of us who don’t die young will get old, and most of us will become infirm, in one way or another – and probably in more ways than one. Some of us will lose our minds; most of us will lose mobility; all of us will lose friends to the reaper.

The compensation for all these losses may or may not be wisdom, but we gain character. Like an old tree becoming gnarled and twisted, we become more ourselves.

I want to spend time with my father. He is very much himself, and is precious to me.

And I’m way too far away from my JIA REN.

1 comment:

Matt said...


I am contacting you because I am working with the authors of a book about blogs, and I'd like to request permission to use a photograph of yours in this book. Please contact me at, and I'd be happy to give you more information about the project. Please paste a link to your blog in the subject field. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.