Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Defining Family

I have lots of thoughts floating around in my mind regarding this topic of defining family so if this post comes across as scattered, it is.

2018 was in general an exhausting year. My plans to have a warm sunny Christmas vacation with Cousin Kelly were thwarted a bit by the occurrence of significant passings in my family.

Our trip to Miami began on December 22. That evening I received the call that my father's cousin Brian had passed away after a brief but heartbreaking battle with cancer. 

Cousin Brian was only 51. Yesterday would have been his 52 birthday. He was the youngest of my father's first cousins and really the first of this very large group of first cousins to pass away from an illness like this. 

Some, including myself, would argue that mental illness is what took my father's other cousin, Richard, back in 1995. However, Richard took his own life, he didn't wither away in a hospice bed like Brian. But I digress...

The youngest great grandchild of Charles Henry & Anna Marie Sauer-Henry, Brian was a quiet, gentle soul. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in early October. And it was a fast moving aggressive cancer. When he was asked by his siblings about announcing his diagnosis and inviting family to visit, I was deeply touched by his request to see me. It had been years since I had really seen Brian but he was very much my family and his passing brings me to tears daily still.

Years ago I had requested Brian to take an Ancestry DNA test because he would have the y-chromosome for my father's mother's line; the Henrys. A very private man, Brian consented to take the test. Among those of my father's cousins who have taken the test, I match closest to Brian. DNA defines us as family, no doubt.

On our way from Miami to Key West on December 26, I received a call from my father that my Grandma Mary, my step-grandmother, had passed away on my dad's birthday after a rather long, exhausting, decline that I cannot attribute to anything other than old age. 

Over the past few years her organs had slowly stopped functioning. Others in our household would say that it was really just the last few months but she had been living with us for the last 4 years. First it was a fall that put her in a wheelchair and into the back bedroom of our house. It was not long after that she needed to be put on a colostomy bag. Another year or so later, after a series of infections, she received a foley catheter. When moved back into the hospital for the last time before hospice, they discovered she was not actually swallowing. Her alimentary canal was not moving the food fully through her. Slowly, her organs were failing.

Grandma Mary was, again, my step grandmother. We had no biological connection. I didn't need her to take a DNA test to know that. But I lived with her everyday for the last few years of her life. She had been my grandmother for the last 30 years since my father remarried in 1989. My mother disowned me when I was in my mid-twenties so it feels Grandma Mary had been my family longer than my own mother. DNA does not defines us as family though.

Last night the first episode of season five of Finding Your Roots aired on PBS. The episode was subtitled Grandparents and Other Strangers. It featured comedian Andy Samberg and author George R. R. Martin. The pair of guest has similar stories really, although they were kind of polar opposites.


Samberg, who knew his mother had been adopted, set out on a journey to discover his biological heritage whereas Martin, whose family had held great disdain for his grandfather for abandoning the family, uncovered an NPE; a Non-Paternity Event. Unbeknownst to Martin his grandfather, the abandoner, was not his biological grandfather. 

Samberg's story was remarkable in that not only did the program determine who his biological maternal grandparents were, his mother met her previously unknown half-brothers and received photographic evidence of her biological parents' association.

The two guests stories underscored this genealogical matter weighing on me for much of the last half of 2018; how do we define family. 

I don't have an answer. I just spend an awful lot of time thinking about it lately.

Because you spit in a tube and match some stranger half-way across the country, you're family? 
I would say, YES! 

But what if you spit in that tube and find out all the people around you, the ones who have known and loved you your whole life, are not biologically your family as in the case of Martin (and so many others I have encountered this year), are you no longer family? 
I would say, NO, you are still family even though you have no common ancestors. 

Which brings up other philosophical contemplations for me; like, does the definition of family change over time? And if it does, does that change relate to physical proximity? Is it impacted by death? If I define my dead people as my family and all my biological connections as well as those who I "live with" how big is this family unit? 

Fundamentally who do I personally define as my family?

...And can each of the living ones get me a discounted phone plan or gym membership? I don't think I am making the most of my family discount potential.

Things that keep me up at night.

1 comment:

  1. I've been trying unsuccessfully to contact one of my cousins (from my mothers side). I knew where he lived for years, been to his house. We lived in the same town for many many years. His father was my Uncle and God-father who I loved very much. After sending yet another Christmas Card with a long letter (and a photo of myself so he could see what I looked like as a mature adult) it went unanswered again. Two days after I came back from Costa Rica (only two weeks ago) I received a letter in the mail (I knew it wasn't a card & looked like a females handwriting). I knew this wasn't going to be good. I was anxious and at the same time did not want to open the envelope. I opened it. A long typewritten letter, my eyes went right to the signature, my cousins wife (who I only met once or twice) My cousin had a long and torturous illness for the past 6 months (he was younger than I and a ex NYC Cop (like his father-my God-Father)He fell and hit his head on a table Dec 15. Was a trauma and stroke victim. It was really bad and they disconnected him from everything Dec 31, 2018. I was devastated and cried. This was a very big, close knit Polish family. No-one is alive to try and connect except a few cousins. They don't have the sentiment that I have and I'm truly sadden. Now I have to rely on Ancestry .