What a touchstone word. A word loaded with history and baggage, fraught with an ocean of emotion. On this sunny first day of spring, I’m plunged into the whirlpool of that ocean, tossed back and forth like a paper boat.
Let me rewind the tape for you a bit, so you understand the context of my current sea-change.
Yesterday I had the honor and misfortune of attending a Celebration of Life for a very dear friend’s father. He passed suddenly and left behind a stunned family and crowd of friends. As they gathered for not a memorial, but a true celebration, I was first, honored to be invited to take part, and second, amazed and thrilled to see the enormous turnout.
I didn’t know Tom well. I had only met him on a handful of occasions, but his presence was large – a smiling man with an open heart and a perpetual twinkle in his eye. I wish I had been given the opportunity to know him better, especially after hearing all the loving and oftentimes humorous stories shared by his friends and family at the Celebration. He lived life well, loved well, and was loved well in return.
After the Celebration, I was honored again to be invited back to a private gathering for family.
Honored. The word doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions. This family, Sue, her mother and father, her husband and his father and sister – all of these people, over the course of the last few years, have invited me into their clan, made me feel welcome, made me feel part of their loving community. I treasure that. I cherish it.
All this makes me consider the notion of family. You see, I am adopted, and despite the best intentions of my loving adoptive parents, I have always felt a certain distance from my adoptive relations. A certain sense of otherness – knowing in my heart that I was not really part of them. For years – decades – this sense of otherness fostered a gnawing loneliness, a desperate sense of isolation. I longed for ‘my people’, but had no way of finding them. For a time I thought that perhaps by finding my birth family, I could fill that void, but my birth records are sealed in the intractable state of Texas, so after years of beating my head against that brick wall, I gave up.
I had DNA testing done, trying to at least get a sense of where ‘my people’ came from. Apparently, somewhere in the dim past, my genetic ancestors were in Ireland. Somehow, that didn’t answer the need either. I mean, we’re talking thousands of years, not two generations back.
Over the last ten years, as the majority of my adoptive family has passed on, including my parents, the sense of being adrift grew acute, like an infected tooth. I grew obsessed with the sense of not belonging. And then, as things do, the pain eventually faded to a dull ache, as the ‘root’ of the bad tooth died. I shoveled as much stuff as I could over the dim throb of ‘otherness’ and thought I had buried it deep enough that perhaps it would never rear its ugly head again.
Until yesterday. Until I sat there, surrounded by people remembering the life of a man I knew really only by reputation and through stories told.
Yet, as I sat there, for once, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I felt part of that collective of friends and family, despite the brevity of my acquaintance. In those moments, and as I made the long drive back to Chicago, the idea crystallized in me that family can be more than one thing. More than the people who supplied your DNA. More than the wonderful adoptive parents who gave their love to you. More than the generations that came before and that will come after. Family can be the amazing people who you collect and surround yourself with – the people who open their hearts to you and invite you into their lives. It can be the people who see you through those dark nights of the soul – even when you’ve never even met them face to face.
Today, my heart is full. Now that I have truly redefined my foolishly limited definition of that emotionally charged word, I realize I have so many wonderful family members now. People who I am proud to call relatives, dear sweet friends I meet regularly for coffee, colleagues I have worked with who remain my steadfast friends, despite changes in jobs and life events, people I went to school with and with whom I’ve shared the majority of my years, people I’ve met online, people with whom I share my spirituality, fellow writers and people who, like my dear friends Sue and Art, have made me part of their family. Oh, and let me not forget the wonderful man I married and my beautiful, awe-inspiring daughter.
On this first, sunny day of spring, I am profoundly grateful to ALL my family. You all know who you are. Here’s hoping the future allows me to increase my family a hundredfold. Thank you for holding me in your hearts the way I hold you in mine.