If you do not have a Heathcliff, I highly recommend that you get one as soon as possible. But you cannot have mine. Everyone must find his or her own Heathcliff. Luckily my brother supplied mine for me.
Lots of people ask me why I call my sister-in-law Heathcliff. It’s taken from the book Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. We both love that book. Anyway, there are these two characters in Wuthering Heights who are really both not very nice people and kind of crazy. Their greatest strength—some might say their only strength—is how much they love each other. There’s this one moment when Cathy says “I am Heathcliff!” basically meaning that nothing could come between them because their souls are knit together making them the same person.
One day back when we were both less mature and serene René and I had an argument. I don’t remember what it was about now but I do remember we were hopping mad at each other. We were even crying and I don’t cry much. She said something dramatic like, “Now you’ve really done it. Things will never be the same.” And not to be outdone I said, “Yes they will. I am Heathcliff!” And so it sort of stuck. Now we both call each other that.
What it means is that I love her as if she is me, because she is, and I am her. And we love each other’s kids like they are our own. No matter what we will always stick together because that is what we do. We are Heathcliff. I could write a whole blog post about sisterhood and maybe I will sometime but that was not why I started this post. I started this post because I wanted to share some help I got with a holiday problem; one I bet a lot of you have too.
So I have this short list of people whose advice I really listen to and Heathcliff’s name is at the top. Heathcliff has a lot of experience with crazy people and I don’t have quite as much so I am not as good at dealing with dysfunction as she is. She is a bit of a sage.
There’s a recurring theme in my life called not being very good at boundaries. I’m getting better, but I used to be really bad at it, especially with people I love. And so even if someone disrespected me and hurt me really bad I might keep going back for more. It seems the more I cared about the relationship, the longer it would take me to create a boundary so as not to be hurt. I thought I could make it better if I kept on trying. I wanted to fix it. As a Christian I had a bit of a mixed-up notion of what it means to turn the other cheek and forgive seventy-times-seven and all of that. I believed it was wrong to walk away.
Then one day the lightbulb came on. I recognized that I couldn’t fix it. I read in the Bible where David ran away from Saul who was trying to kill him. He tried, because he loved Saul, but David couldn’t fix everything either. I saw where Jesus said we have to love ourselves, and shake the dust off our feet when people don’t receive us, and other helpful things. I learned that it’s okay, sometimes it’s even right, to walk away from something or someone who is bad for you.
However, sometimes I forget what I’ve learned. It happens at other, random times, but always around the holidays. It’s so cliché now that Heathcliff has come to expect it every year. I will feel bad. I will consider going back and trying again. I will think about re-engaging even though nothing, absolutely nothing has changed. And when I do this, Heathcliff says, “No. No going back. You are done with that.” She said it to me yesterday, flicking her hand like she was shooing away a fly. And I remembered. Heathcliff is right.
Sometimes things do change. We have to remember that, and hold open a small window of hope in our hearts for that possibility. When and if that change comes, it will be obvious and long-term. There will be no guesswork as to whether we are safe. Meanwhile we walk on through the holidays, and the rest of our days, in peace.