Ancestors

 
 
 

FINDING THE LIGHT WITHIN A DARK PAST

Ellen Watters Sullivan

SITTING WITH MY FATHER IN THE TINY HOSPITAL IN ABBEVILLE, LOUISIANA, I counted to the rhythm of the breathing machine. He would gasp and cough, but smiled most of the time. He seemed to feel better with the oxygen and painkillers, but was also ready to leave this life, content with what he had done and accomplished in it.

We watched old movies and sang old songs and told stories. I would sit and watch him breathe with so much effort, wondering if each breath would be his last. I told him I would kill him if he died on me, and laughed through tears. He said, “Be strong Shug’, be strong.”

After my father died, my brother relapsed again and again. And when he finally died a few years later, his death hit me even harder. My mother had died years before, so after my brother died I felt orphaned.

“Be strong,“ my father had told me.

I tried. I turned to my Buddhist beliefs and meditation to help me through all the loss and the sadness it brought. I practiced a series of meditations that brought me to a spiritually peaceful place. But I still couldn’t find closure, something as a therapist I’m used to helping my clients find for themselves. For me, there were so many loose ends it was hard to find that ending that made it easy to put the losses behind me.

Seeking some kind of resolution led me on a quest. It was a quest to find understanding by getting to know more about my ancestors. Through genealogical research, and immersing myself in my ancestors’ history, I found that learning about them helped me begin to feel connected to them.

I traced back generations, utilizing Ancestry.com and historical society documents. I visited the areas where my ancestors lived in Northwest Georgia. When I learned of the slaves my ancestors owned, it was awful; but it was also amazing, since my father had spent his life as a writer and activist devoted to civil rights.

Dad often said, “Always ask the next question.” As a journalist and author, he lived by the creed, not only in his professional life, but in his personal life as well. So with every new story I heard or ancestor I found I’d ask the next question, take the next steps and learn a little more.

Eventually I learned enough to put together a story that involved early American history, the Civil War and the American Revolution, slavery and the Trail of Tears, and my ancestors’ involvement in all of that. I found pictures and talked to distant cousins I never knew I had.

For me finding “closure” was paradoxically about opening doors, too. It’s okay to ask that next difficult question; it can offer a sense of peace that only self-knowledge brings. In the Serenity Prayer we ask our higher power to help us know the things we can change and accept the things we cannot. The art of acceptance of the unchangeable things—death, disease, the behaviors of others, our past, our ancestors’ past—brings us to that place of peace.

I no longer really feel the need to find closure—indeed, the doors I have opened bring me endless fascination and the satisfaction of knowing that my ancestors live on in me. They are there, inside and out, and I no longer feel orphaned.

We are the sum of the generations before us. Our job is to fix what we can, what they may have messed up, in the best way we can find. I view the story of my ancestors like a whirlpool, with all the moments, years and centuries swirling together, connected by the stories, all the small and large pieces of information that comprised them and us and me. This perspective helps me feel a part of something much larger than myself. Loss transformed, life moves on.

Ellen Watters Sullivan, MSW, is a writer and psychotherapist living in Massachusetts. She is currently completing a memoir, I Once Was Lost: How I Got Found, about her early years down south and the uncovering of some very dark family secrets. Learn more about her at: www.ellenwatterssullivan.com

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