“But are they related to us?” She slows down on that one word, related, emphasizing each syllable, holding the long a even longer, as though I have just, at this moment, learned to speak this language of ours. It plagues me when she asks this question, mostly because I have no idea how to answer it. If I say yes, she’ll want to know how, and who belongs to whom (because with her, answering one question inevitably leads to another question). If I say no, I’m afraid that it will, in her heart, somehow diminish the relationship that already exists. Her six-year-old science mind wants proof of bloodlines in charts and family trees.
When our kids were born, we started referring to our friends as “Uncle Stu,” or “Uncle Matt,” or “Aunt Ricki.” Even though there was no blood relation. Even though there was no familial obligation. The only thing that separated them from our “family” was the idea that they actually had a choice.
I had a student last year who, for whatever reason (I’m not sure if the story was that people had always told her she looked like Lilo or that she had actually dressed up as Lilo for Halloween the previous year), made a reference to “Ohana” from Lilo and Stitch at least twice a week (which seems a little bit weird for a high school student, but if you knew Sabrina, you’d understand). The conversation would go something like this:
“You want to know something?”
“Ohana means family. Family means — ”
“No one gets left behind.” Sigh.
“Or forgotten. I get it, Sabrina.”
But maybe I didn’t. She drove me crazy. She would say it at least once a day. She would send me Facebook messages (when she wasn’t supposed to) that had funny pictures of our class, or artwork that somehow incorporated the word “Ohana.” But no matter how many times she told me, I really don’t think I got it. Until now.
Last week, I learned that, sometimes, family has nothing to do with genetics or marriage. Family is comprised of the people you take care of, the people who take care of you.
On a Sunday evening, I sat around a table eating pizza with people who have known two-thirds of my children since before they were born, who love my kids almost as much as they love their own. And they have no duty; they aren’t the people who, in the words of Robert Frost, “have to take (me) in.” But they are people whose very existence has made my life better. If you don’t call that family, well, then I don’t know what you do call it.
I watched as my three-year-old gave these people all kinds of love with reckless abandon, and I realized that if she isn’t hung up on technicalities, then why should I be?
So, yes, they are related to us. They are our family. They are the ones who won’t forget us and who won’t be forgotten.