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The Ties That Unbind

When my mom died, so did the family I was born into.

By Jonathan ApolloPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 8 min read
Photo by Adobe AI

Weeks before Momma lost the ability to speak, she made one last promise and one final request.

To her last surviving son, she promised that she would fight as hard as she could against her cancer prognosis. This was in response to what my aunt claimed Momma told her just days prior – that she had no fight left in her. I knew Momma was lying by the look in her eyes alone, but I allowed her to keep the ruse going.

To her last surviving sister, who was also in the room with us, Momma asked if she would look after me in the days to come. Despite her inability to arrive anywhere or time or maintain commitments outside of her weekly church attendance, Momma truly believed my aunt would come through when it mattered the most. My aunt swore that no matter what, she would honor Momma’s request. As my eyes caught Momma's once more, I think we both knew that I was pretty much on my own from that point on.

Momma took her last breath in August of 2021. Since then, I can count how often I’ve seen my aunt– or any blood relative, for that matter – on one hand. It’s not for lack of trying on my part, however. When Momma died, so did the family I was born into.

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Since childhood, I’ve had trouble bonding with those I share blood with. Even my relationship with my mother could be rocky at times. During most family gatherings, people flocked around my mother and older brother; welcoming them with open arms and smiles. Meanwhile, I always felt like I was just there - an unwanted add-on to our family. The way I saw it, Momma and my brother were the great pieces of fried chicken you bring to a cookout, but I was just the coleslaw (clearly store-bought and lacking flavor). Eventually, I stopped attending family gatherings altogether.

To my relatives, I was always the sensitive and misunderstood one; usually off in a corner reading a book, blocking out conversation with my headphones, or somewhere out of view from my maddening crowd of relatives. I had picked up early on just how out-of-sync I was with many of them. To be fair, they never made much of an effort to help me find my footing.

Here are a few highlights for proper insight:

  • During a family gathering in the 80s, a relative thought it would be funny to “out” me to several other relatives, including my mother. I was only 6 or 7 years old at the time. This relative isn’t aware that I know about this.
  • To the naked eye, I usually got along best with my younger cousins. The reality is, the feeling wasn’t exactly mutual. When our parents were out of view, they would run off to do their own thing, leaving me to my own thing.
  • I had an older cousin I idolized and grew fond of almost like another sibling. They even lived with Momma and me for a few years. Growing up, they were one of the few relatives who didn’t seem to mind having me around… but when my other cousins were in view, they acted like I didn’t exist.

My family and I did get along for the most part - most of the time - but I never seemed to find a permanent seat at the family table. On the odd chance I felt welcomed by my relatives, the moment was always short-lived.

One experience that sticks with me involves a wake following a young relative’s funeral. Momma chose to have everyone come back to our apartment after the service. Due to the sad nature behind the loss, I chose not to attend the service. Instead, I stayed home to set out food and plastic utensils with another relative who left the funeral early.

As the family arrived, a handful of my cousins popped into my bedroom to say hello and decompress from the emotionally draining day. The memories of the young relative they had just laid to rest began to flow freely, along with our shared experiences and more than a few alcoholic drinks. Laughs were had, tears were shed, and more laughs followed. As most Black folks call it, it was the epitome of a celebration of life. At that moment, I had never felt as close to these people as I did then.

As the night wound down, one of my cousins thought it would be the perfect time to bring up a grievance they had with Momma regarding their spouse. To this day, I have no clue why they chose this particular time to bring up such a heavy subject. Nonetheless, Momma, never one to back down from a fight, revved her attitude to 10 and fired back on all cylinders. The matter got very nasty very quickly. In a move that shocked even me, I decided to step in hopes of calming the room down.

After reminding everyone of the sad reason we were all together that evening, Momma, in all her stubbornness, turned her frustration to me for interfering in the argument. In my heightened emotional state (aided by too many glasses of wine), I fired right back with a few choice words. Almost instantly, everyone’s attention centered on me. They called me out, and told how rude it was to speak to my mother that way.

I acknowledge they weren’t wrong. I mirrored my mother’s frustrations in that moment, which didn’t help my fight or anyone else’s. Still, the fact that absolutely no one picked up that I was trying to fight for our broken family in that moment, broke me. Once again, I was seen as the black sheep; the odd one out, the one who was too sensitive, too weird, too much. The cousin whose spouse I defended promised to check in on me the next day. They never did. I wasn’t surprised. Hurt, but not surprised.

In less than six hours, I finally found my spot at the table… and it was revoked just as quickly. I swore that it would be the last time I allowed relatives to hurt me in any way. It’s also why I stopped using my family name from that day forward.

Seeking: One family to love me as I am. | Image from Runway AI

In the days, weeks, and months following Momma’s death, the final cords began to unbind – albeit not by choice. Despite my complicated feelings toward them, I tried to reach out more and stay connected after Momma’s funeral. For a time, my phone calls were answered and returned… but that time was fleeting. When I realized I was the one doing most of the work, I moved on. The volume of calls never picked up again.

Additionally, here are a few other points of contention that has led to this place and time:

  • Although she begged to plan the entire thing, my aunt nearly ruined Momma’s funeral by waiting to full all important aspect until the las minute. Had it not been for Momma’s first cousin – someone she considered another sibling – there wouldn’t have been a decent service or a wake to follow. My aunt also signed all of the important documents at the funeral home while I was greeting guests; making her the main contact point, despite me being Momma’s sole beneficiary.
  • Another relative Momma was close to invited me to Thanksgiving dinner that first year. A very kind gesture, indeed, but I haven’t seen them in person since that evening. Since that time, I’ve heard through the grapevine that their grief itself in the most frightening of ways. I feel for them, but I also know there’s nothing I can do for them.
  • Days before what would’ve been my mother’s 72nd birthday, I received a phone call from my aunt and a few other relatives. They had planned a family event to honor my mother’s life and reached out to extend an invitation. This was the first and only time I heard of this event. By the time I was contacted, the planning was complete without any suggestion from me. Understandably, I declined their invitation.

They have since organized other events that include memorial shirts with my mother’s face on them. To date, no one offered me a shirt, an invitation, or a request to use my mother’s image. I've only learned of most of these matters through social media.

What takes me aback in all this is that while I’ve known who these people are for years, I still hoped for more from them. Out of all of my relatives – and there are still a few of us around – there are two that I still hear from somewhat consistently. There are so many fragments of Momma’s life within my bloodline, especially within the people she held dearest, and I feel like I have little to no access to these pieces of her.

Momma's still got me. | Image from Bing AI

When I lost Momma, I naively hoped that we would come together with our memories and shared grief, and try to navigate in a world without her. I genuinely needed support from those who knew my pain from a relatively personal perspective. I received anything but. Perhaps that’s selfish of me to feel, but even after all the hurt and disappointment they caused throughout my life, I made an effort to connect and bond after losing the woman who gave me life… and they have not.

If there is a sliver of silver lining within any of this, it would undoubtedly be the people that instantly surrounded me with love and empathy after losing my mom – my chosen family. Had it not been for these amazing angels on Earth, I do not know how I would’ve made it through these last 2 ½ years. They never fail to show up for me, no matter what that looks like. The amount of love for each of them goes beyond expression in the written word. They are blessings and I am truly blessed to have them in my life.

Sometimes, I feel guilty about stopping the efforts to stay close to my relatives. Our family was always one of Momma’s driving forces. She was seen as the matriarch of our clan, and she wore the title with pride. Still, I can't help to recall why she never forced me to interact with my relatives more than necessary, nor did she question my need to keep my guard up when they were around. On some level, I believe she knew I would never find my place with them. Perhaps that’s why she was often just as adamant that I hold tight to the true friends - or family - I made along the way.

extended familyparentsimmediate familygrief

About the Creator

Jonathan Apollo

I bang my keyboard and words come out. It's what I do. 40-something, M, NYC. He/Him/His. #TPWK

Twitter/X & Facebook: @JonnyAWrites

Buy Me A Coffee (if you're feeling inclined): https://www.buymeacoffee.com/jonnyawrites

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Comments (3)

  • Novel Allenabout a month ago

    Believe me Jonathan, you are not alone in this situation. I am also a black misunderstood sheep in my family, most keep their distance. Being the brooding book loving type usually gets us shunned. Families should be close, but they are hard headed and hard hearted, you can only do what it takes to reach out and make the best of the result for yourself. Nurture whatever happiness you can find and let nature take its course. Let go and let life. Do you and be happy.

  • Josh Mitchellabout a month ago

    Brilliant, tender, and incredibly real.

  • Oneg In The Arcticabout a month ago

    Gosh, Jonathan, I don’t even know what to say, but wow. Your bravery is commendable to not only share this, but to write so honestly and vulnerably. Unfortunately I relate to quite a few points, and my heart goes out to ya. I’m glad to hear that you have an amazing chosen family- sometimes they’re the real fam. Those who lift us up. Sending love and tenderness your way.

Jonathan ApolloWritten by Jonathan Apollo

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