My little brother passed away about four years ago. Every time I think about our complicated relationship, I think about our strange family tree, and the concept of “the family you choose.”
When I was in elementary school, my teacher assigned a family tree project. I was given a large sheet of paper with an illustration of a tree, and along the branches of the tree, I was to write down the names of my grandparents, parents, and siblings, and then present this information to my class.
It has always been difficult to explain that while I am one of six kids, I only lived with two of my siblings while growing up and that only one of the two siblings in my home was a “full” sibling.
Both of my parents were married before they met. My mom and her first husband had a daughter. My dad and his first wife had two daughters. After my parents met, some ten months later I was born, and then my brother was born thirteen months later. My brother was my only “full” sibling because he was the only sibling that shared the same mom and dad with me. Many years later, my dad remarried again and had another son when I was in high school. So, I have four half-siblings.
Whenever someone asks me about my family, I feel like my explanation must include this complicated timeline, and my words are almost always met with a look of astonishment (or sometimes, judgment).
My mom and dad both came from big families. With age, I learned a lot about our family’s flaws, but as a kid, I felt incredibly lucky to have such a large and loving family. My dad’s family lived nearby, so we would have regular Sunday dinners with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My parents weren’t together very long though, and in time, we became outsiders at family gatherings. What I had thought of as my large, extended family, slowly started to slip away.
When my parents officially divorced, my mom received primary custody of me and my brother. She already had custody of my older sister from her first marriage, so we officially became a family of four. My dad had allowed his first wife’s second husband to adopt my two (half) sisters from that marriage, so we rarely saw them, and because of that, we do not know each other very well to this day.
For a variety of reasons, we moved from New York to Vermont when I was nine years old. Within a few years, my dad moved to Arizona. Our biological family was now separated by divorce and great distance.
After we moved to Vermont, we rarely heard from our extended family, and to be fair, we rarely contacted them, either.
It was as though moving away drove the final wedge in what was already a complicated family connection. In time, even my and my brother’s relationship with my dad dwindled from regular visits and calls to almost no communication at all.
All I had left, and all I felt I could really rely on, was my little family of four: me, my mom, my (full) brother, and my (half) sister from my mom’s first marriage.
As my siblings and I grew older, our family began to change. Like any family, we experienced struggles and challenges, successes, and celebrations. My older sister started her own family and we were blessed with my two nephews. We were also blessed with two nieces from two of my brother’s relationships. Our family tree grew more complicated but more beloved. The most pressing struggle for our little family though was my brother.
My brother was a lot of things… goofy and charming, handsome and awkward, clever and sensitive. He loved our complicated family and would forgive anything we did because he so desired our love and approval. My brother was the kind of person who fell in love quickly. He had two daughters with two beautiful women.
One night, while at a party, he fell and broke his back. While he was still able to walk after the accident, he was disabled, and in a lot of pain. His proclivity to self-medicate with alcohol deepened, and because of this, he did not have a consistent relationship with his daughters. We were told that our participation in their lives was unwelcome and that we could not see the girls in order to protect them. Because we were accustomed to lost connections, we accepted it.
In time, my relationship with my brother also dwindled.
The chaos that had always surrounded him grew more powerful. I did not want to watch him drunk and stumbling anymore. I did not want to support his drinking habits, and I felt completely powerless to help him recover from them. My brother didn’t want to lie to me, so he kept his distance from me too.
We let our relationship deteriorate to almost nothing by the end. I did not know his favorite food or his favorite music anymore. We still loved each other, but we were basically estranged.
When my brother passed away, I had only just discovered that I was expecting my son. It was a difficult time. My dad flew out so he could be there for the service, and his family decided to make the trip to Vermont too, in order to support him through his grief. It was the first time I saw my aunts and uncles in many, many years, and I was glad for the opportunity to reconnect with them, despite the terrible circumstances. I was grateful that they made the trip, despite having had so little connection to my family in the past two decades.
One of my brother’s daughters came to his service. I tried to imagine what that moment must have been like for her, and it broke my heart. She never really knew him, and she didn’t know us.
My combined grief from losing my brother, and my guilt for not having been there for him in his final years, or having maintained any relationship with his daughters, collided at that moment. I was devastated and filled with regret.
I eventually chose to reconnect with my dad.
I decided there was no sense in clinging to the past— that my dad is human and flawed, and so am I. I decided that I wanted a relationship with him, even if it was a little awkward because we’ve missed so much time and we don’t know each other well. I decided to focus on the here and now, and to build a future for my son that includes an important member from his family tree. One of my nieces—the one who came to my brother’s service—recently chose to connect with me. She is a teenager now. As hard as it is to explain this complicated family tree that she inherited, and why we weren’t present in her life for all these years, she wants to know us, and we want to know her, too. I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity.
People will say, “You don’t choose your family,” and what they mean to say is that you don’t choose what family you are born into.
But the thing is, you do choose what kind of relationships you have. You do choose the family you keep. It’s your choice to love your family and accept them as they are, and it’s your choice to separate yourself, whether out of anger, fear, necessity, or other. It’s your choice to put forth the effort, even if it is unreturned. It’s your choice to pick up the phone or to let distance drive a wedge between you. It is also your choice to walk away from someone who creates chaos and destruction in your life.With my brother, addiction separated us. After my efforts to love, support, and help him failed, I was forced to make a choice—to separate myself for my own self-preservation. With my father, siblings, and nieces, I didn’t choose to be separated. I was a child, and it was done without much thought. Now, as an adult, I understand the reasons for our separation, and I refuse to allow my pride or fear stand between us.
When you don’t actively choose to be connected to your family, the consequence can be a lifetime of regret.
I will always regret the distance that formed between my brother and me in his final years, even though I understand that his addiction played a huge role in that distance. I will always wonder if I could have done something— anything— that could have helped him turn his life around.
But there is no going back. I know if he were here, he would intentionally choose all of our family, anyone who would have him. He was always forgiving, and always seeking love. That’s just how he was. I’m not quite sure how to do that, because family distance is all I know. But for him, I will try. In his memory, I will make the effort this time, even if it is unreturned.