I turned 23 this August and received a birthday card from my grandparents.
I tore up the card and left it on the windshield of my grandmother’s car.
Wait. Let me explain.
My father died from alcoholism in the summer of 2007. I was 12-years-old, old enough to remember him kicking a basketball-sized dent into my mom’s Ford Escort when we tried to leave the house one night. Old enough to remember watching him pass out face first into his mashed potatoes.
Too young to connect any of this to the fact he smelled like the bar he took me and my brother to, waiting for a charter bus to take us to Fantasy Island for the afternoon.
My father was a police officer, which partially explains — though not excuses — the drinking.
I know he loved us in his way.
On his nightly beat, he would drive his patrol car by our house and flash his red and blue lights in the bedroom window my brother and I shared. We would hop out of bed and wave until he passed by.
We would sleep over his house — my childhood home — on weekends. He would take us to the movie theater where I saw “Spider-Man” and “Spy Kids.” But unsupervised visitation became out of the question when my father had an episode while driving me, my brother and sister home one night. He pulled over, shaking and crying. My unlicensed sister had to drive him to the hospital. Our visitation became confined to dinner at my grandparents’ house every Monday.
Like all cops, my dad had a pension. It was money my mom needed to help raise us. But my dad never put the paperwork in her name. He was a procrastinator, like me. He left everything in his grandmother’s name. She was nearly 90 years old, fresh off the boat from Spain and the only family member my father truly cared about. He fought his family to keep her out of a home, so she lived with us when I was a kid. She died 10 years before my dad, but he never fixed the paperwork. Like everyone, he either thought he had plenty of time or more likely just never thought of it at all.
The money went to her son, my grandfather. The man I would watch “Home Improvement” with at the foot of his La-Z-Boy, who could fix any broken action figure in his basement shop. We thought he and my grandmother would give it to us. That’s what my dad wanted, although he never acted on it. That’s what was fair.
Instead, my grandmother hired a lawyer and kept it.
With my dad gone and the money tensions looming, my brother and I started visiting my grandparents less. I didn’t know about the money at the time, but it felt natural. The purpose of the Monday dinners was to see our father. It was where we held a makeshift Wrestlemania in the guest bedroom, where I pinned my dad — one-two-three — to take home the World Heavyweight Championship. It’s where I would marvel at his ability to swim the length of the in-ground pool and back on one breath of air and I swore I’d be able to do the same.
It was not where my brother and I would sit by ourselves in the basement, watching “Cash Cab” as my grandparents, aunt and uncle chatted upstairs over coffee.
With my father gone, the visits felt empty and purposeless.
Instead of changing the ritual or visiting us in our house, my grandmother began court proceedings to make visits mandatory.
It was a bizarre and painful custody battle, one my father never even put us through. I could see the stress it caused my mother. She had protected us our whole lives from messes like these. Now my brother and I, 10 and 14 at the time, had to tell a law guardian why we didn’t want to see our grandparents anymore.
It came to a head that Easter when my brother and I staged a sit-in and refused to take part in an Easter egg hunt. My grandmother was furious and drove us home.
After that, I did not see my grandmother for 10 years. Our only contact became an annual birthday card and Christmas ornaments sent to our house around the holidays. The birthday cards came with $25 checks, yearly reminders of what was taken from me. The ornaments became less relevant to my interests or anything going on in my life as the years passed, reminders that my grandparents had become veritable strangers.
I don’t remember what this card said. Something generic about “best wishes” or “much love.” Things more suitable to a Hallmark card purchased for a coworker than your grandchild.
What did she hope to accomplish with this empty gesture? I like to think it assuages her guilt to give that yearly pittance. And I couldn’t let her have that.
I tore it up and left it on her windshield.
I know it was mean. But I don’t feel bad. Not really.
Perhaps if the adults around me – specifically my grandparents – had acted more thoughtfully when I was young, I wouldn’t have to resort to passive-aggressive guerilla war tactics to take out 10 years of pent up frustration and anger.
I have not attended the annual Garcia-family reunion at Chestnut Ridge since my father died. But the card-rip heard ’round the world gave me a virtual reunion.
One of my father’s sisters sent me several, long-winded messages on Facebook that day. My uncle’s wife messaged my sister and mother accusing them of tearing up the card. I immediately messaged her asking that she leave my family alone and stay out of our business.
Last month, I was on a train from NYC. I had been at 30 Rockefeller Center pitching film ideas to executives as part of the Pitch NY program. It was a huge moment for me. I was riding high until I received messages from my uncle’s wife calling me “an ungrateful little boy.” She said my father would be ashamed of me and that I would never get any of his money.
You know, the money I wasn't seeing any of anyway.
More recriminations came. Mostly my family wanted me to know what a disappointment I was, how sad my dad would be to know what I had become.
I think about my dad. The man who gave me life and Johnny Cash. The man who attended the General Mills company picnic with my mom, her sisters and brother-in-law and said “if anybody asks, I’m the guy who puts the marshmallows in Lucky Charms.”
The man who told my mom he wanted to die since he was 9-years-old.
I cannot say how he would feel about the card stunt. But I feel confident that he would understand.
My dad would, I think, be horrified at the way his family has treated us. He’d be stunned that his mother took his money and kept it from his children. He’d be angry at his siblings for harassing rather than helping me.
I have no plans to apologize.
My grandparents decided 10 years ago that money mattered more than I did. My aunts and uncle decided placating my grandmother was more important than watching me grow up. They never called or tried to be a part of my life or imagined how I felt losing my dad.
A part of me will always feel that hurt.
But most of me has moved past it.
I lack whatever tribal instinct seems to bind these people together. They say you don't get to pick your family, but what they should say is you don’t get to pick who you are related to.
Relatives are your cousins, aunts and uncles. Your family are the people you choose to spend your life with. They are the people who help you. People you can trust.
You have to become more mercenary about your life.
Take stock of the people who call you family. Ask yourself if they truly are. What do they add to your life? What do they take from you?
If they are taking more than they add, then why are they still in your life?
Relatives hold blood over your head, expecting you to stand by them for no other reason. Blood is their “get out of jail free card,” the ultimate defense against any issue you raise with them. If they slight you, you are supposed to forgive them. Even if they don’t apologize. Especially if they don’t apologize. They are “family.”
I’ve had many family members over the years. Most of them not my blood.
There is a word for a creature who latches onto blood and takes from you until there is nothing left. That word is not family.
It is parasite.
David Tunis-Garcia is the managing editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org