Tonight is the last night for another year that I’ll sit here writing in the glow of the Christmas tree. The house is quiet, my daughter having gone back to her home a few miles away and my stepdaughter and her significant other out to see his friends on their last evening on the East Coast.
This evening my husband is enjoying a rare guys’ night with his soccer friends, many of whom he coached long ago when they were in high school. They’ve played together for three decades now, through joy and children and job changes and loss. Their friendship has been one of the anchors in my husband’s life. They are family.
I have been left home to dog-sit. And the dogs sit quietly, our sheltie at my feet guarding home and hearth and my stepdaughter’s rescue Chihuahua sitting with her head on my knees. Jealous of one another at the beginning of the week, they have come to a truce. This peacefulness is temporary, and I know it will be interrupted at the next sound that might herald the return of the people they love.
Like us humans, the dogs have decided that coexisting is preferable to staking out territory and baring their teeth when one threatens the other’s space. As I watch them, I am convinced yet again that coexistence is better than conflict but that coexistence isn’t enough. I would love to see them play together and curl up on the couch together the way their human families do.
In the absence of an ability to love and appreciate each other’s differences, I’ll settle for having them coexist. But I’m grateful that in my human life, the people I know who could merely coexist with me in spite of our differences have given of themselves to me this year when I needed them most.
Last year as I wrote about the joy of holidays with family and friends, I didn’t know that in March I would lose the closest friend I had who is the most different from me. I am white; he is African-American. I am a liberal Christian; he, in spite of his liberal politics, was a very traditional Christian, who sometimes struggled to reconcile what he believed on social issues with what he’d been taught about the Bible. I miss him every day, but I’ll always be grateful that we moved beyond coexistence—that we became friends who enriched each other’s lives.
Unlike the loss of my friend, I had expected for three years to lose my mother, though expectation made the loss no easier when it finally came at the end of October. As I sat by her bedside in those final days, I dreaded the reunion with extended family members that I’d avoided altogether in the fourteen years since my father had died. I felt I couldn’t coexist with people who believed my parents were bound for hell because they didn’t share their fundamentalist belief in a vengeful God.
But I was surprised when the patriarch of the family, my father’s brother and a very conservative preacher who interprets the Bible literally, allowed my mom’s best friend, a woman and a more liberal Presbyterian, to officiate at my mother’s service in the family cemetery. It was the first time a woman and a nonmember of my uncle’s church had ever officiated at a service there, in a congregation that believed women should be silent in church.
My uncle, who owns the land, could have forbidden my mom’s friend from standing over my mother’s grave with a Bible in hand. He did not. That, in itself, was a surprise to me, that he would stand peacefully at the service and coexist with a minister of another faith. But more than that, he allowed her to take his hand and walk him to the side of my mother’s grave. And he hugged me at the end of the service and told me that he wished he had been able to mow the grass and make the cemetery more presentable as my mother deserved.
After the service, his daughter told me that her dad loved my mother in spite of their differences, and she said, “Dad has learned a lot in his years on this earth.”
I would have settled for and have been pleasantly surprised by coexistence—existing in the same space and time for a few hours without conflict. But to have more than that—to have been offered compassion in my loss, to have had my uncle defy what he had been taught about God his entire life…well…yes…that literally beats the hell out of coexistence.
We can occupy the same space together, and that is good. Or we can have compassion in sorrow and celebration in joy—learning from one another that what we have in common is more important than anything that separates us. Sometimes it’s messy, and sometimes we misunderstand one another, but that is part of what it means to be a human family.
So now the dogs bark at the sound outside and run to the door together, but they circle each other, careful to stay a few feet apart. Disappointed at yet another false alarm, they return to their perches and wait. I laugh. How funny must we humans look when we behave in the same way.
Coexistence? I’ll take it. But I’d rather be family.
How about you?