October 14, 2013

A young man posted this on my Facebook page today, “I only knew Andy for a short time, but when the accident happened I felt like we were all one big family.” That young man was 13 or 14 then. He is now 11 ½ years older, so that would make him 25 or 26. Andy would have celebrated his 26th birthday today.

That young man’s comment made me consider the meaning of ‘one big family.’ Wouldn’t it be amazing if we always felt that way—like one big family? And why must it take a tragedy to make us think that?

I had a large extended family when I was growing up—lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins! How wonderful that was! The major holidays were always filled an abundance of food and play time.

When Blaine and I started our family, it was obvious that my sister would never have any children of her own. She was eleven years older and had a hysterectomy when I was still in college, but she was a stepmother of two boys at the time of Wes’ birth. Her divorce from her husband several years later denied Wes and Andy of any first cousins, even step-cousins, on my side of the family.

After Blaine’s sister married, it wasn’t too many years before she and her husband began their family. Our niece was born premature but was a fighter, and Wes and Andy had their first, first cousin. Her brother came a few years later.

Although our extended family wasn’t big, we had one. And it was good…it was beautiful. Three grandparents (my father had died in 1979, when I was 21 and my sister was 32), two aunts for Wes and Andy, one uncle-in-law, and two cousins. Oh, and a great uncle. We were an odd-lot as most families are. Blaine’s parents were divorced, so there was a step-grandma too. But these people, this family, filled our home at our Christmases and Easters and birthday celebrations and any other excuse for a family-get-together that we could come up with.

But, what I have come to realize in the last 15 years since both my mother and Blaine’s mother, Blaine’s sister Gina, Wes and Andy, and just last month my sister, Velda, my last immediate blood-relative, passed, is that family means something entirely different than blood-kin.

So what does family mean? Many families are divided because of arguments over money or things, or even sadder, over who gets the children when  or by something that someone said 10 or 20 or 30+ years ago! And what makes that even sadder is that the descendants may not even know what the division was about. Many families are divided by miles, but technology has made those miles less difficult to travel. But, isn’t a real hug, kiss, or pat on the back much, much better?!

When you think of family, is that what you think of? Division? I hope not.

One big family…we are one little teeny, tiny family. Yeah, I feel sorry for myself sometimes. I often think about Hope and what she will face in her adulthood. I don’t want her to feel the loneliness that I have often felt because I couldn’t have a  real  conversation with my sister since the onset of her disease over 7 years ago. Well, Hope won’t know that particular loneliness—she doesn’t have siblings. Living ones anyway.  Although she has already expressed several times over the last few years that she wishes she had a sister. I pray very often that she will marry into a huge family with all the trimmings. Not material trimmings, but a family filled with love, kindness, hugs, kisses, and lots of food. She would love that part—the food part. And I think she would pretty much go for the others too.

One big family…at my sister’s memorial service at least three cousins commented to me, “We have to stop getting together only when there’s a death in our family.” Those comments came from both Mama’s and Daddy’s sides. But for a long time now that’s the only time our extended families get together. And I don’t think it’s going to change. We all use the busyness or too overwhelmed with our own immediate family stuff excuses.

And then of course I remember why we don’t get together as one big family. Something said or something someone did has caused a rift among us. I don’t do well with that. Petty. But I’m not making an effort to bring the family together. So, I suppose, I’m no better than those who started the rift. And I’m not sure I even remember the details of that!

One big family…my definition of family has changed. I know why that young man made the comment about how the accident made him feel like we were all one big family. We were all united by grief. And grief is something we all will face. You may have a family that goes through life unscathed by petty arguments over things said or things (material possessions). You may have a family who never has dealt with the harshness that can accompany divorce and child custody. But, I seriously doubt that any family will escape any of those ‘life offerings.

But when a family, a community, a church, or what really breaks our hearts, an entire school is faced with death, we see the finality of it all. And we take a minute or a few days or in my case, my lifetime, to reflect on what family means. Again, family is not just blood.

Family is two 14-year-old boys who came to my house on their bicycles to sit for hours to tell me what they remembered about my youngest son. And how to build a catapult. That made me laugh even though it was less than two weeks after the accident.

Family is my oldest son’s best friend calling on the phone his one afternoon during the first few weeks of his freshman year of college weeping because his first love just broke up with him. And he still calls every now and then. He is happily married to his second, and only, true love. At least I hope so.

Family is someone leaving a potted plant on my doorstep on the anniversary of my sons’ birthdays for several years after their deaths.

Family is a new friend who takes time to write one of the most heartfelt letters I’ve ever received on my last birthday. She has known me for less than a year.

Family is a former neighbor who drives an hour to spend time with me when my only sibling is dying. That former neighbor also got our daughter off of the school bus and was willing to wait until my husband arrived home from a business trip after 10 p.m. that night. That former neighbor has 5 teenage daughters.

Family is the young men and women and our peers who still share their memories of them more than eleven years later.

Family is twelve other women with whom I have confided my deepest pain through writing and through sharing those writings for eleven years. Each of those women has lost a child too.

This is my family. I wish I hadn’t suffered such a great loss to realize this. I try with all my heart to appreciate those people in my life. I don’t want to take my big family or my little family for granted. And on the days when I feel alone in this world, perhaps I will read some of the letters that we received from so many of these family members all those years ago. Letters that begin with these two phrases:

My memories of Wes are…or my memories of Andy are…

Those memories, together with the new ones we are creating with Hope, are woven with love. Love of family.