Not surprisingly, in a time of great stress and upheaval, my thoughts have turned again and again to family, and what it means to be “family.”
The practical help and moral support that has flowed in our direction during this latest crisis has been amazing. Food, emails, phone calls, visits, shoulders to cry on, help with my kids. My friend Caryl, in particular, has gone far above and beyond any call of duty, spending one afternoon driving my kids to see Daddy in the hospital and then taking them out to the bookstore and for ice cream afterwards, and spending yet another afternoon here visiting and helping with the kids while her husband fixed a broken shower faucet in our master bath. The realization has come to me that she is one of those rare people who spends her life giving of herself – and not just to me and my family, because I see her doing it with others as well. She’s amazing, as are quite a few other people in my life.
I commented on Facebook last night that “I have more people to whom I am grateful than I can shake a stick at.” My friend Jodi responded with, “This is what being supported and loved feels like. No strings, no expectations – just your friends wanting to help and be there for you and Michael when you need it. The reason you have so many people who want to help is because of the kind of friend you are to all of us the rest of the time.” She went on to say, “It’s what you’re supposed to get from your family. Since both of your ‘real’ families seem incapable, you create your own family of friends.”
In times of crisis throughout my adult life, it’s always been friends who have rallied around me, and not so much (or at all) the people related to me by blood or marriage. I learned a long, long time ago that “family” isn’t a given, it’s a privilege, and sometimes you do have to make your own family because the ones you’re dealt by birth or marriage just don’t live up to the hype.
A few months ago I was out to dinner with a couple of friends and Jodi (who is extremely wise, who is part of a close-knit family herself, and has a thing or two to say about family), was talking about when her brother got married, and how people would ask her “Do you like his new wife?” I wish I could remember her exact words because she expressed it all so eloquently and succinctly, but what she said was something to the effect of, “That question is really beside the point, isn’t it? That’s who my brother has chosen to spend his life with, and her job is to make him happy and make a good life with him. If we [meaning Jodi and the rest of the extended family] hope to remain on good terms with them and be welcomed into their home and the family they create, then we better embrace her. It’s not about us, it’s about them.” This really, really struck a chord with me, and has stuck in my craw ever since. This is not what has happened with my own in-laws, and that is at the heart of a chasm between us that is so wide and deep at this point that it’s not likely it will ever be bridged.
I think some people – consciously or unconsciously – just never expect their offspring (or siblings, as the case may be) to actually go forth in the world and make a life for themselves in which the family of origin is no longer primary. When someone grows up and gets married and has children, and takes that marriage very seriously and invests all kinds of blood, sweat, and tears into it to make it something solid and true – that rightfully becomes primary. When there is an inability or unwillingness on the part of the family of origin to accept that, nothing good can come of it.
I don’t think Michael’s immediate family (with the exception of his mom, who passed away five years ago) ever expected to become secondary, to have their place in Michael’s life usurped by a wife. I look at our wedding pictures, and everyone is all smiles and hugs, and it looks like we are on the brink of something wonderful with the full support and blessings of everyone present . . . but I wonder now if they just didn’t expect it to stick, or if they expected that I, the wife and mother to Michael’s future children, would remain secondary. I’ve never been embraced as a full-fledged member of their family, complete with all the rights to air grievances that a real family member would have. They’ve never tried to get to know me. Michael and I have been married for almost ten years now, and they’ve never asked about my family, where I come from. They don’t even know my middle name or when my birthday is.
When I think about it from a logical standpoint, I know that I shouldn’t take it personally. It’s probably not me they can’t accept, it’s just the role I’ve filled in Michael’s life. However, it all has gotten very personal and very nasty over the last couple of years. People’s essence tends to be stripped clean when the chips are down, and in the months following Michael’s cancer diagnosis, a lot of unsavory things were exposed about people – people you assume will be there in a selfless and meaningful way when it really matters, but who, in the end, aren’t.
So this is why my extended family is comprised of people like Jodi, and Caryl, and Lisa, and Jen, and Karyn, and Karen – none of them related to me in a conventional way.
At the hospital the other day when that social worker took me into the little conference room and let me cry my eyes out, and she asked me about my family, I told her, “I don’t have family, we’re estranged.” I meant my own birth family and my in-laws. She said, “I’m estranged from my family, too, don’t worry about it.” Then she said, “You go where the love is, and you leave the rest. Life’s too short.”