No need for condolences.
Last week my brother died. Well sort of. And let me tell you if you haven’t already figured it out, this is going to be a strange blog post.
So was Leonard my brother? Yes. And did he die. Yes. But I say sort of because Len was 14 years older than I, and severely mentally retarded. He had been institutionalized since before I was born, and although I would see him once or twice a year when I was pretty young, he really had no clue of who I was, and I had pretty much the same feeling about him. I remember once when I was about 4 years old that he had a little wind up car that he zoomed through my massively wild curls of hair. My mother had to painstakingly cut it out. That experience provided no incentive to strike up a more meaningful relationship between him and my 4 year old self.
At some point Leonard was moved to a facility in a small town in the middle of Missouri. I pretty much didn’t see him for several years. I think the last time was shortly after my first son was born 15 years ago. I drove my mother to visit with him. He was pretty wild and so a visit really only lasted for about an hour. After that, he began to pace like a caged animal wanting to return to his natural habitat.
Leonard knew our oldest brother a little more so, and my sister Rose. For several years now Rose has been Leonard’s legal guardian. She had to bear the responsibility of making end of life decisions for him, and it was Rose who called to tell me he had passed away. I feel badly for her. But I don’t feel badly for me because it is not more sad for me than the passing of any other person on earth that I don’t know. I don’t even feel badly for Leonard, because this past year has been tough for him physically and I have to believe he is no longer suffering.
But I also feel badly for his “family” and that is what this post is really about. The physician who provided the last of care for Leonard told our sister that his room was graced with constant visitors. When Rose communicated to his casework Connie, that Leonard’s funeral should take place in the town where he has lived the last 30 plus years, Connie broke down in tears on the phone. She told my sister that it’s what they all so badly wanted, but didn’t have the right to ask for. Rose said, and I agree with her completely that “they are his family”. They have loved him and cared for him all of this time. They knew him. They will miss him.
That experience made me think about the definition of family, and some of the stories that belong to people I have worked with over the years. The woman whose son doesn’t call, or acknowledge her on mother’s day but the other “family” who has adopted her. Does she have a right to consider them as family? Or the man who has raised the daughters of his wife, but never legally adopted them out of respect for their “father”. What should he call himself? There is the young woman whose parents lived a considerable distance away, and she was comforted and supported by the parents of her roommate. Yet, she tried to always respect the boundary of not being “real family”.
Having lost my own father at a young age, and not finding my mother as a particularly helpful source of guidance about the world, I have said many times that I feel as though I’ve been fortunate enough to have been nurtured by a number of other parents over the years. Some were professional, some more personal. But in reality, even those I call professional existed primarily because the other person extended a fondness towards me. They are someone who was willing to give extra of themselves to help nurture me along on my journey. As a mother myself these days, I recognize it as the same maternal instinct that wells up within me about someone, for whom, I want to go the extra distance.
So all of this, I guess is to say that family does not for me, fit into a neat category as defined by blood relationships. When a family adopts a child as their own, we don’t see the relationship real only because it is legal. Rather, we assume that once the child is welcomed into the family, there is no longer a distinction despite the lack of shared bloodlines. Why then, if this fact is true, must other family relationships be limited by the same definition?
Have you enlarged your family over the years? Are their family members who love you that you won’t legitimize without legal or proof of a blood test?