5 days ago my step dad underwent an ileostomy to remove his colon/entire large intestine and rectum. I’ll spare you the gory details as it mostly ends in people giving me disgusted looks with their mouths hanging open. Or for those with a much more mature take on the situation … poop jokes.
As they wheeled him towards the O.R., I found myself fighting back tears and having to face the possibility of losing a parent. He joked, “I’m just going to the BVI’s for a few hours! Be back soon to show off my new tan!” I choked back a laugh/sob/snort and rolled my eyes. Even as he was stripped down to nothing, vulnerable and naked aside from a hospital gown, he was trying to make everyone around him laugh. Not because he wanted attention – ok maybe he wanted a little attention – but because he was worried about us. He wanted us to know everything was ok.
Thankfully my mom and I weren’t alone. Her best friend, soul sister, and who I secretly believe is also her soul mate and future wife, was there to support us. They call each other Buddy (I know, I know), so for all intensive purposes she will be referred to as Buddy from here on out. For the record, neither my mom nor Buddy are gay, but when the two of them are walking around in matching zip up track suits and pony tails, holding hands, giggling, and looking into each other eyes lovingly whispering, “awwww Buddy!” it makes you stop and wonder – am I witnessing adult twins who still wear identical outfits or a pair of lesbian lovers?
[Cue: Phone call from Mom.]
Buddy and I retreated back to the hotel to gather supplies (AKA wine) for the long and inevitably torturous wait. As we gathered our things and made our way back down to the waiting room, we poured our hearts out to each other and decided we were family. It was official and we didn’t care if there wasn’t blood or marriage to bind us.
“They say you can’t choose your family, but you can. You definitely can!” Buddy said with authority, pointing her very muscular and toned arm in my direction. “I agree!” I said, my twiggy and very un-toned arm not looking nearly as impressive as hers. “Who cares if blood is thicker than water!” I aggressively argued. “I’ve always hated that quote. The most treasured people in my life, aside from my own two parents, don’t share a drop of blood with me.” Buddy nodded in agreement.
Family is somewhat of a tender topic for me, as not everyone has always understood or accepted my alternative definition, and more specifically my bond with Pepe. [Or sometimes just me in general.]
In my mind, it’s simple. I have two mothers and two fathers. I only have one “Mommy” and one “Daddy” (I can’t believe I just typed that), but it’s true. My mom and my dad are just that, they always will be, and no one could ever take either of their places. I’d like to add I’m VERY lucky in having a mom and dad who both respect and admire my other parents – I’m aware, this is rare. AS WELL as step sisters and a step brother who consider not only me their sister, but themselves my dad’s daughters and son, just as I consider myself one of Lisa’s daughters. Jesus this is getting confusing, we sound like one big happy modern Brady Bunch.
[Cue: Dad rolling his eyes.]
Moving forward … certain people, who will remain nameless, have chastised and ridiculed my relationship with Pep over the years. We were told we weren’t family, and it wasn’t real, because I didn’t share his blood. Together we laughed it off and refused to defend ourselves. He raised me since I was 9 years old. I am his daughter, and he is my father. Not because of his title, or his marriage to my mom, or because we were forced – ok maybe we were a little bit forced – but because we love each other. Case closed.
The past year has been one giant roller coaster, from extreme highs and celebrations to ground shattering lows and losses. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling, and equally a lot of time in hospitals visiting ailing friends or family members. As I look back on this considerable amount of time in my life, the most important people in it, the ones who have invoked the sincerest and rawest of emotions, were all people I wasn’t blood related to. That’s not to say I don’t love or feel connected to my own birth family – because I DO – I definitely do.
But family is not a one size fits all. It’s not the name, or the blood, or the contract of marriage your mother signed that bonds you to someone. It’s the distinct and remarkable individuals from each category of life – blood, marriage, and friendships – who come together to create your true family. Your very own circle of trust.
So I have a new definition.
Family isn’t about blood or marriage. It’s not about our lineage or DNA, or whose traits we share. It’s not about that crazy great uncle we never talk to but who sends cards every year on our birthday. Or the awkward encounters with people we barely know but are told we belong together, because we are related one way or another. It’s not about gifts or money or who we are supposed to see on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It’s not about the forced dinners where future father in-laws are caught giving the new fiancé reproachful looks, or the painfully boring get-togethers that no one really wants to be at, except Grandma. It’s not about family reunions and weddings and funerals. It’s not even about being related.
Family is about the way you feel when you’re with the people who mean the most to you in the world. The ones who accept you for who you are and love you unconditionally.
Family is love and trust and loyalty.
Family is sharing a common thread, a faith that things will always be okay, because you not only believe in each other, but in something greater than yourselves. It’s holding them in your arms when their heart is breaking, and being their strength when they physically can’t go on.
It’s supporting each other when everyone else tells you you’re absolutely crazy. It’s supporting each other especially when you think the other one is crazy. It’s being scared to let the world see the real you, but exposing yourself fully and vulnerably to them.
It’s the people that laugh with us, and at us, and are honest enough to say, “OMG take that dress off what the hell are you thinking!?” It’s the people who when you find out your pregnant, or sick, or losing someone, or moving, or getting married that you call and no matter what insane thing you could possibly throw their way, they can handle it. No questions asked.
It’s confiding terrible moments of weakness and memories you wish you could forget, and knowing they won’t judge you. It’s giving one look and knowing what they are thinking. It’s looking at the other person and saying, “I know. I know and I don’t care. I love you, and if anyone wants to mess with you they’ll have to go through me.”
Family is having the courage to fight, and the foundation of years of trust to know whatever happens, it won’t be the end. It’s being honest. It’s holding someone to a higher expectation, because they are in your inner circle, and you deserve more, and most importantly so do they.
Family is laughing so hard you pee your pants. It’s dancing until your feet hurt and talking all night long until you lose your voice. It’s pushing bunk beds together just so you can be closer, and quitting teams in protest of your best friend.
It’s a grown man shaving his own legs to show a 12 year old girl she doesn’t have to be afraid, or teased anymore at school. (Thanks Pep)
It’s climbing into a giant bed with 10 people just so you can all be closer, one last time, in that moment together. It’s falling asleep holding hands, as you both listen to someone you love painstakingly lose the love of her life, and he takes his final breaths. It’s wiping back the tears and staying strong, so others who are hurting more can grieve.
It’s having their backs and defending them when they can’t defend themselves. It’s being there no matter what. It’s showing up. It’s protecting each other. It’s love. It’s unconditional.
If you’re lucky, you are born with these people already in your life. If you’re really lucky, you might also get some of them through marriage, or through the ripple effects of divorce. And if you’re really really lucky, you’ll find yourself surrounded one day by a circle of incredible and exceptional people, from all different backgrounds and walks of life, and you get to call them family.
Thank you for being mine.
Dedicated to Papa Pep.
In typical Stessie fashion, I looked up that stupid quote about blood I hated so much and found something I thought was pretty damn ironic …
“Blood is thicker than water,” is actually an adapted version of the original quote from the Bible:
“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
A quote that has been shortened and used for centuries to express the strength of family connection, is in fact referring to the blood spilt in battle and the bond between soldiers, not between “family” members. So quite literally, it’s saying the exact opposite. The true meaning of this misused quote is that experiences, comradery, and the triumphs and hardships of life tie men together more closely than merely sharing DNA.