Of Extended Family and Endings

10151194_10153250732136766_5871828394969407407_nIt could be that I am wrong putting these two things together, but my experience has taught me differently lately. My immediate family, husband and children, is the center of my life. My sisters and their families come a close second. I imagine it is the same for most of us, never mind our background. We also have extended families. They are important, they fulfill a role that is necessary in society, especially where I come from. That is what I always thought and how I always believed. Could it be that I was wrong? Let me tell you why.

When my sisters and I came to college in the States, our parents stayed behind. Of course, you would say. I am also sure you know that in those days traveling back and forth, calling home and keeping in touch, was very different from what it is today. Traveling, actually, was the easiest part. Now, calling home was another story. You needed hundreds of quarters, dimes etc, you needed to know the right operator for International Calls and you needed patience. Let’s not even mention keeping in touch. Letters would take more than a few days: write, then mail and deliver. Yes, I am that old!!!

Boston is not around the corner from Panama, but we managed. During those years, we visited our parents, our parents came to visit us and we spent many hours trying to conduct long distance conversations from a pay phone in our college dorms. It also happened that we all fell in love with boys we met there and going back home after college was not to be.

Of course, then, we didn’t stop to consider that our lives would be changed forever and going back and forth to Panama was not going to happened as we thought. That’s youth for you: we were happy, everything else took second place. We see that now, but our parents saw it then. Still, they never tried to change our minds or made us feel guilty about it. Their lives changed as well and in many ways not always for the better since their children were living far away and the grandchildren were not there for them to spoil and cuddle and love!!! .

We were busy with our lives, our families, but we visited them regularly……or they came to us. Life continued. Our children adored their grandparents, but had lives so different and so far removed from them. My parents grew older and my father passed away in 1984. He was younger than I am today!!! It was a wake up call and very difficult to accept.  In the years that followed, my mother grew more and more attached to her family in Panama.

They took our places in her everyday life, but we never minded. We kept in touch, visited, took her on our vacation trips, she visited us. Those were happy times in many ways, but hard times too. Saying good-bye was harder and harder. We could see she was getting older and all those family times would become difficult to arrange. Our children went away to college, another step in the never-ending march of Time.

My mother’s life made her happy. Every time we visited she had a new project or she was moving to the beach house for the Summer. She kept active and was with people she loved. Her peace of mind and her happiness had no price. She was happy and that was enough for us.

Yes, she was happy helping everyone. Her family, even today, say how wonderful she was and how she took care of everything, no matter what. Then she had a massive stroke. No point talking about that since I have before. As she got progressively worse, we discovered that extended families are not always what we thought they were. Ideally, everyone should be able to talk and express their opinions without arguments. Resentments never solved anything.

Slowly, our extended family shrunk and this is what I mean by endings. What was is no longer and that tells me it was not real. With this ending came another realization: we do have some wonderful people in our family. Finally, we are left with the ones we love, the ones that were there for us. We have the time and the openness to get to know them again, to enjoy their company. As someone who loved her family, my mother would have understood.

My mother’s illness made us stronger. Her passing made us free of whatever attachments we thought we had. The peace of mind and serenity we now enjoy is priceless. Endings are a beginning and for that, we are grateful.

Lessons Learned and Extended Family

I come from a very large family. My mother had eight brothers and sisters. Growing up there were twenty-eight cousins to deal with, play with, spend vacations with. It was amazing. Those cousins did their part and we had twenty-three children among ourselves. Not bad, I would say, since seven of us did not have children. Nowadays, the cousins are having grandchildren: nine and counting.

As with any family, there have been disagreements, arguments, differences of opinion along the way. Somehow we managed to stay in touch and function as a family for decades. Much had to do with our mother. She was the eldest sister and always made sure everyone kept their cool and stay in the bosom of the family. Hard work indeed, we now realize.

For my sisters and I, living for years away from Panama, it was a comfort that she had her extended family around her, keeping her company.  They kept her engaged and occupied when we couldn’t. Somehow, we were looking at the situation in a very different way than the rest of the family. I have always been a bit detached, not quite fitting in, but happy to see everyone and enjoy family time when I visited. My sister Laura was very involved, visiting regularly and taking her children to get acquainted with her side of the family. Ana was more distant, but this didn’t stop her from visiting and doing the family thing.

We thought everything was fine and our mother was happy. We were grateful.  She visited us often, came to all her grandchildren’s special occasions, travel with us for fun. Our relationship was wonderful and we treasured out times together. Without ever telling us, her family thought we were not doing enough. What to do? Isn’t this something every family goes through? We were sure of that, so we didn’t give it a second thought.

On December 31st, 2006, our mother suffered a massive stroke. She was almost 83 years old, active, full of life and so much fun. We were expecting her to enjoy good health well into her nineties as women in her family have done for generations. It was not to be. In a matter of minutes, all that changed.

That it has been a long and arduous road, it’s an understatement. That we have discovered that our extended family is not what we thought, it’s a sad truth. Consequently, my sisters and I have grown very close. There is now a bond so strong, we can read our thoughts!!! They are my closest friends because we have shared so much. We are there for each other unconditionally and I am very fortunate to have them in my life. Would not know what to do without them.

Still, we all need more than the small circle of our immediate family. It is a human trait, we need company, we need people around us to help us carry on. So here is what I have learned. Family is what you make it. Blood ties are not always what bounds us to people and what make us think of them as family.

Family is the people you have near you, the ones that are there when you need a hand, a shoulder to cry on, a hug, a smile, an understanding ear. Family is the ones that run to you when you are sad, take charge when you need comfort, let you grief in peace, rejoice with you when you are happy, do not ask questions until you are ready to talk and support your decisions even if they do not agree with them.

Family, in other words, is so much more than common ancestors. Family is a support system that helps you navigate the difficult times and is there to celebrate with you on the happy ones. Family is behaving in the same manner and reciprocating the love, attention and support you receive. Family is a feeling you share with those around you.

As I have grown older, I realize the importance of an extended family. Who would fill this role? In the years I have lived away from Panama, in different places and cultures, I have been so lucky to have found some wonderful friends. We have shared  experiences, being there for each other at difficult moments. They have seen me cry and share my sorrows, they have seen me laugh and share my happiness. They are now scattered on all corners of the world; we do not see each other often, some of us just  keep in touch once a year, but I know I can call, email, present myself at their door and it will be fine. I am grateful to each and every one of them. This is the other powerful lesson I have learned: these friends are part of my extended family!!!