His alarm sounds from the living room, where he must’ve fallen asleep again. I hear him groan. Two minutes later he shuffles into my office and greets me with this: “I made a mistake on my flight time, so we need to leave in a half hour.”
The morning has been pleasantly quiet and productive. It’s still early.
“I’m all packed so I’ll get in the shower and be ready quickly.”
“That’s fine,” I say.
I put on another pot of coffee. I’ll need to drink fast.
Thirty minutes later we’re in the car and I’m passing him a twenty, which he resists. I say “emergency money” and he rolls his eyes, I fuss and insist, and then he slips the bill into his pocket.
He’s off to the Midwest to meet up with his brother, then on to his father’s house, then his college campus to tend to some business, and eventually the loose itinerary will lead him back home. Come fall, he’ll be headed to college to again, and he won’t return until the holidays.
After his semester abroad last month, he hopped around Europe on the cheap to connect with cousins and grandparents. Hes become a resourceful and experienced traveler. More importantly, he knows the importance of family.
My definition of family values?
Respect, tolerance, understanding, reliability, trust, candor. And humor helps.
Thus far, my sons seem to have learned well.
I glance at the pictures next to me on a bookshelf: my boys as toddlers in holiday sweaters; my boys wrestling on the couch when they were six and seven; my boys in band – one playing flute and the other, trumpet; the three of us together at Christmas when they were both teenagers; a holiday picture taken a year ago of my sons, myself, the man in my life.
Family. To me, it is more important than any writing I will ever labor over, more important than the art I am drawn to and that inspires me, more important than any possession, any accomplishment, any external measure or definition of who I am and what I am worth.
The nuclear family?
We all know that the Norman Rockwell version of domestic bliss is no longer the single standard by which we compare realities. I say this though my own household once resembled the glossy imagery of traditional home: mother, father, two kids and a dog. The scene was picture perfect, or so it appeared from the outside looking in. Naturally, any fissures in the foundation were hidden to the casual observer.
Words come to mind: lineage, bloodlines, genealogy. These are important, but family is so much more.
Our notions of 21st century families are more expansive and more fluid, as diverse as our evolving stories: single mothers and single fathers raising children; two mothers and two fathers doing the same; blended step-families in assorted configurations; aunts, uncles, or grandparents with the primary role in child-rearing; happy couples without children, steadfast as a family unit exactly as they are; partnerships that are committed, with or without the legal elements of marriage.
We can debate the pros and cons of this evolution ad nauseum, yet isn’t it the nature of relationships that makes family… family?
What matters most: the quality of love, approval, guidance, honesty; respectful appreciation; our careful words, our meaningful actions.
None of this guarantees that family will not disappoint, cause harm, be derailed.
Then it is up to us to find a way back if we can, or to recreate a new sort of family as it suits us to do so. We refashion our bonds out of necessity and desire in all the tender and essential ways that count: affection, reliance, support, laughter, at times conflict that once resolved, deepens our mutual understanding.
These are the values that shape us, that chase us, and if we are fortunate, that catch us and hold us in their good, strong, open hands, protecting our most fragile, more fierce, most precious familial relationships.
This afternoon I will wait for the text or the call that tells me my son has landed, that he’s with his brother, that they’re off to eat deep dish pizza, off to the museum to make crazy videos for Youtube, off to meet friends and enjoy their time together as they generally do, when they can. And my heart is full knowing they care for each other as they grow into men.
They are, after all, family.
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