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!!!