In the end, the question is this: what is family?
It seems to me there are two answers to this. Family is blood, or, family is who you make it to be.
Strap in and consider my circumstances.
I am the child of divorced parents. Both parents remarried. I was raised by my step-father, whom I consider my father. He has three kids, my step-siblings, whom I consider siblings (well, two of them, in any case, the third being our lost-in-space black sheep). On my biological father’s side, I remember his wife, Karen, though to refer to her as my step-mother seems nonsensical. She had a daughter from a previous marriage, Christine, who is technically my step-sister, though that’s an odder fit yet. I myself am thrice married. My second wife had a son from a previous marriage who was my step-son, but that went by the by when the marriage did. Ann has a daughter from her previous marriage, Claire, so I have a step-daughter, in addition to Maisy, my daughter from marriage number two. Clear as mud, right?
Not to me. I am perfectly clear on who my family is. Because in my life, blood has only something to do with family, while showing up has everything to do with it, and the heart knows who family are.
Thus the queer nature of returning from the Thanksgiving holiday yesterday to a letter from Karen informing me of my biological father Frank’s passing a few weeks ago. In her letter she explained his demise, offered up a general sense for his life these past few years, and pointed out where he “loved us dearly.” She also included two photos she found that he’d carried in his wallet, including the one above. She wrote on the urging of her own daughter, Christine, who I guess also had a “broken” relationship with her father and once appreciated being told that he had died.
I do appreciate that Karen wrote to tell us about Frank’s death. In a scenario of vastly diminishing returns all these years, it was perhaps the last data point of any interest to me, and why I even cared about it, I can’t say. The idea that he “loved us dearly” only made me feel sorry for him, and only a little, that this could possibly be the truth, given how he did and didn’t live that out in life. My reaction overall: meh.
Family is an earned thing. That’s my takeaway from my life in families (as I’ve obviously passed through many). My mother always said about Frank, “He was never going to be a good father to you as children, but he would have really enjoyed you kids as adults.” All well and good, but that’s not how it works, is it? I mean, it could have. Each of my siblings and I could have at some point along the way done whatever to reconnect and then had that enjoyable adult relationship with Frank. None of us chose to, each for his or her own reasons. I myself chose not to because Frank didn’t earn that privilege (and he was frankly—ha ha—enough of a creep at certain moments in life that I lost interest in having a relationship with him). I also hated the thought of my father—I’m talking Paul Wells here, my father—having to reconcile any of us kids being back in touch with Frank, Dad knowing what a creep Frank had been, Dad having put in ALL of the heavy lifting of raising us. Dad, being dad, would NEVER have expected that kind of loyalty from us. I am proud that we showed him that all the same. To borrow from Catholic mass, it is right and just.
Frank lived to 84 years old, this after a life of no exercise and long periods of alcoholism and cigarette smoking along the way. I will gladly accept as his bequeath to me some of the same hearty stock that propped him up that far.
Time does end, my friends. That tomorrow for which you wait to do that thing, say what you want to say, may fall on the far, far side of life itself. And then it will be left to those who survive you to do their best to say that thing, like, “I loved you dearly,” and hope the listener believes it.
And that is nothing you should count on.