This is dedicated to all my brothers and sisters in Christ.
A high school sophomore, I sit at my desk. The teacher asks the class, “How do you define family?” A twinkle in her eyes signals she’s looking forward to a good debate, but I can’t imagine a reason for conflict.
I’ve read our textbook, and I agree with its broad definition family.
Andrew sits next to me. He’s a handsome guy. Polite, but curt in the face of my friendliness. I can’t blame him, he is a senior stuck in Health.
Andrew answers the teachers question with the traditional definition of family.
My heart gives a little pang. In addition to my mom, it would be awesome to have a dad, brother and sister. No wonder he seems to be have it all together—designer clothes, new backpack, stylish clean-cut brown hair. Lucky guy. I bet he doesn’t ever use his babysitting money to purchase shampoo and toothpaste. He probably doesn’t even have to work. Not that I mind babysitting or my part-time job at Kmart. Actually, I rather enjoy them.
The class agrees with his answer. Of course, everyone knows that definition.
I raise my hand. “My family’s just me and Mom.”
Andrew faces forward and scowls while my other class members agree that yes, indeed, I have a family. Duh.
My gaze keeps flitting back to him. Why is he angry? I’ve never doubted my family was real. This is a ridiculous topic. I chuckle. He must be thinking of something else.
“That’s not a family.” Face red, he shakes his head.
The class goes silent and the teacher raises an eyebrow. It appears she has her debate.
“You think I don’t have a family because it’s different than yours?”
“It’s not a real family.” He continues to face forward, chin up as if making some sort of stand.
Does he have a moral issue with me for believing I had a family? Or is it my mom he ridicules?
Maybe he knows I’m the product of an adulterous affair?
Unlikely, but possible.
Obviously, I couldn’t choose who raises me or how I was conceived, so it had to be Mom he judges for simply being a single mother. Mom could have given me to my aunt when she offered to adopt me into her large family. I’m sure it would have been easier than struggling to raise me alone, but Mom would never give me up. We’re a team. A tight family. She loves me more than anything in the world. I can tell her anything and she won’t judge.
A few days later, on Sunday morning, I step into my mom’s bedroom and tell her I’m leaving for church. She’s tired from working the night shift, but she sits up. Her eyes slits and hair askew, she holds out her arms. We embrace, and I revel in the love I feel.
“Have a good time.” She collapses back against her pillow.
I exit out the front door. I could drive myself, but I loathe entering church without a family and facing the invariable questions. “Where do you belong? Who are your parents? Where are they?”
Can’t a teenager just want to go to church on her own? You’d think it never happened, the way they frown and blink at my answer. Church people always recover and paste on a smile, but by then it’s just awkward. They open their mouth and close it as if unsure what to say to someone like me.
On occasion, I sense a much worse vibe as if I’m an outsider infiltrating their services to entice their sons away from the Lord. I shudder. It’s so much easier not to risk it and arrive with a family. Then everyone knows where I belong. Besides, I get to experience what it’s like to be a part of another family.
I traipse down the street to the nicest home on the block and the best paying babysitters. But more than that, a family of five I’ve come to love over the last two years.
I knock, and the mom yells for me to enter. I find her in the kitchen, in her bathrobe, reaching for a box of Cheerios.
I grab the box. “I’ll get this.”
“Bless you.” She rushes off to get ready.
I place bowls of cereal before her three kids while they talk over each other to catch me up on the last couple of days. My heart warms with affection for these children. I want a family like this someday, a Christian family who worships together. The noise, the giggles, the craziness, the belonging—I want to fall in love with a handsome guy and create this warmth and acceptance for my kids.
I stand on the stage at that same church repeating my wedding vows. God is blessing me with a husband. I inhale to calm my excitement. A Christian man, who promises to love me for the rest of his life. I’m on my way to having the family of my dreams.
Our families sit on the front row. His parents have been telling me they love me since our first meeting. Besides giving me a mentor—who helped fill the holes in my life left by my missing biological father—my heavenly Father has also seen fit to bless me with a father-in-law. And now my children will have a good father. A man of faith and conviction who tries hard to do the right thing.
The doctor cocks her head to the side and frowns. “You haven’t been using birth control for a year?”
“That’s right.” It had been a full year. I let my pills run out and hadn’t found a new doctor after we moved.
Her eyebrows rise. “Hmmm. That’s odd.”
Odd. I think about her words for the rest of the day. Of course, I will have children when we’re ready. We had been waiting for my husband to finish graduate school but now he had. We were both working fulltime, so why are we waiting?
Months later, I’m pregnant! Our family is starting, and my plans are falling into place. I schedule my first appointment. Something is wrong with the blood work and they can’t find the baby’s pulse.
The ultrasound shows conjoined twins. My doctor explains, “They didn’t separate properly and would have had serious medical problems if they had lived.”
I nod and put on a brave face.
She smiles and pats me on the back. “This is a rare occurrence which is unlikely to happen again.”
My second miscarriage left a new doctor assuring me the baby was under twelve weeks so still no problem. “Keep trying. With all the things that have to go exactly right to create life it’s a miracle any of us are born.”
My third miscarriage starts the testing. An autoimmune disease? A genetic disorder? All the tests come back normal.
The forth miscarriage happens right after an all-clear at the twelve-week mark.
God, am I never going to be a mother? Why put the desire in my heart if it’s never going to be? Would I have a family? Am I a family now without a child? Yes. Children didn’t make a family just blessed one.
My fifth pregnancy, the following month, had the nurses shaking their heads. One took my hand with tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
No one believes I will carry this child to term… but I do! A healthy, beautiful baby smiles up at me.
Thank you, God, for my family.
My relationship with my husband strengthens as we both take on our enormous new responsibility to our family. The need to protect my child is strong. And my view of the world changes, evil becomes more apparent and concerning.
The doctors assure me the miscarriages won’t happen again. “After the first one, the body figures out how it’s done and things happen.”
Unless they don’t. Two more miscarriages leave me asking if I will raise an only child? I wanted my child to have brothers and sisters, but it might not happen for us again, although, science can’t explain why.
Then I have another boy then another! I have my family of five. Though I’ve always said I wanted a girl, I’m thrilled with being a boy-mom of three.
When my youngest is a year old, I go back to my doctor because nursing my baby becomes painful. She assures me, “It’s time to ween your little one and you’ll be fine.”
Six months later, a knot in my breast has me complaining to my primary care physician. His face grave, he sends me for scans the next day. Concerned, they biopsy the following day and I get the call I fear.
But it can’t be…I must raise my family. Could it be that God would bless me with the family of my dreams only to take it away? To take me away from them? I won’t be able to celebrate their milestones, guide them through their trials, and love them. Have I spent so much time waiting to be here that I’ve missed all there is to my life? “It wasn’t enough living.”
“It’s never enough,” my mom explains. “You always want more.”
I contemplate her words as I wait for my chemotherapy and chat with another patient whose prognosis is graver than mine. She sits with her grown daughter and grandchild. “Life is so unfair. Eighty-five years is not enough.”
I bite my tongue. Oh, to live until eighty-five! Even eighty—the average American life span I’d assumed would be mine, now seems unlikely.
My husband and I arrive home that evening and discover my mother-in-law has cleaned my kitchen while she watched our boys. I’m not surprised, she’s family after all. My mother helps all her tired body will allow, too. That’s what family members do.
Two days later, after sleeping most of the afternoon, I’m starting to feel better following the chemical onslaught.
A friend from church arrives at my door with an assortment of the best BBQ in the city. While we hug, an elderly woman from our congregation smiles through my glass door. I open the door and she wheels in a luggage cart of food for my freezer.
“Just so you don’t have to shop this week.” She grins and gives me a side hug.
Through my illness, once again my definition of family grows. People I know and love and others I’ve never met before remind me how large my family has become. They do my laundry, organize my kid’s rooms, and cook us dinner. Not just on occasion but all during my chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation treatments.
A family member is with me during my surgery as the OR nurse. Another family member is the nurse in the recovery room.
Family members surround me. Every. Step. Of. The. Way.
As a teen, God showed me He is the Father to the fatherless, but I didn’t always recognize my brothers and sisters. Until now. Church is more than the social occasion. It’s not just where we find like-minded friends, and a safe place to play. It’s more than a place to learn the Bible. Church is a place to commune with God’s family. My family.
Now, four years out, I have no guarantees that my cancer will not return, no promises I will be able to raise my boys. Instead, I’m certain to encounter more trials, but now more than ever before, I’m certain my family will be there to see me through.