On Thanksgiving, Gratitude & Family-By-Choice

It took several decades and multiple disownings, but family got simple for me a few years ago: family is made up of the people who stick around to support you no matter what, no “We’ll love you anyway,” assumptions, or prerequisites. Now, family members are the people I count on and I get to decide who those people are — whether they come from my birth family, adoptive family, or family-by-choice.

It’s fitting that November has all of the pieces of my family tree: National Adoption Month, my brother-by-choice’s birthday, and the traditional start of the holiday season when I tend to bounce around to orphan Thanksgivings or meals with friends and neighbors. Home is wherever I’m welcome, wherever I feel seen and loved; it no longer has a location or personnel requirement.

The people who truly care about me understand if I can’t afford to take off work or fly this time of year. We don’t keep karmic score cards, lists of who adheres to holiday mailing ritual requirements, or mental notes on whether gift-giving was even steven. My family is patched together by chance and choice — simply and perfectly.

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As best I can recall, in my mind family was never the “standard” Two Parents + Child(ren) concept.

The day my parents adopted me — Family Day — was one of my two favorite bedtime stories as a kid. The other one was about my dad’s badass one-eyed cat, Blind Anthony. (Storytelling was kind of a thing on dad’s side of the family, so I consider Anthony & his dog intimidation tactics to be more legend than fact.) Reciting my adoption story and asking for it to be told to me with all the details are two of my earliest memories. I’d jump on my parents’ water bed (it was the 80’s) when I couldn’t wait any more for them to get up on Saturday mornings and ask to hear it again, even though I’d just heard it the night before.

For part of my childhood, being adopted was just a thing about me like being tall or my blond hair. My parents first told me I was adopted when I was so young I don’t actually know when it was. But, around age eight or nine when people would ask “Gosh, where does she get her height?” I would start to say “Oh, I’m adop—” and my mom would interrupt, grab my arm, and say “Oh, she’s just lucky.” After years of my adoption being a common knowledge, matter-of-fact sort of detail about our family, I spent the next several years wondering if my mom had started seeing me differently because I wasn’t “hers.”

Suddenly, instead of my family being “special,” my family seemed complicated.

Throw in several awkward teenage years, a rare genetic disease false alarm, and several undiagnosed/untreated mental illnesses, and family largely became something to deal with rather than a source of support. It was emotionally complicated and I looked for community elsewhere — first at a pretty great church (I got really lucky) in high school that had a group of supportive, college-aged organizers who worked with the youth group and then in college when I started labeling some friends “brother” and “sister.”

The concept of family-by-choice was hardly a leap for an adopted kid who grew up calling some of her parents’ friends “aunt” and “uncle.” My best friend from childhood — the mother of my oldest niece — wasn’t someone I gave a specific family title to until she and her husband were going through the adoption process themselves and we had to decide what I would be called. Since we’d grown up calling each other’s parents “aunt” and “uncle,” Aunt Katie seemed a natural fit.

After growing apart and together over the years, she and I have become closer again, learning to lean on each other through some rough years and value the security of having someone we can trust with absolutely anything. Her parents — despite mine stepping in and out of my life like they’re doing the Hokey Pokey — have continued to see me like family, including me in gatherings and birthdays. My aunt checks in on me, texts on my birthday and when she’s thinking about me, and keeps tabs through my best friend in between when we see each other. My Uncle always has a big hug and a smile that reminds me of the best parts of my dad from when I was a kid; I tease him about not being retired yet and hoping I can pay for my niece’s college education some day to take him off the hook.

It has never matter that we aren’t “technically” related by either blood or law; they are my family.

When my closest cousin had a daughter three years ago, I became an aunt again — this time without any conscious thought. Of course, she would call me Aunt Katie; her mom and I had always been more like sisters than cousins — clinging to each other for validation and recognition as the two youngest in an extended family that didn’t exactly share feelings or information openly. She has been the voice in my head — my conscience and my “audience of one” — for as long as I can remember and I trust her implicitly without question.

Just last year I reconnected with my oldest cousin on the opposite side of my adoptive family tree. She quickly became like the big sister I’d always wanted — and had really hoped she would be until she and my mom had a falling out fifteen years ago. When I went through something similar, it created the space for us to find each other again through her stepdaughter who I was friends with on Facebook. My cousin and her husband would do anything for me — I know it as sure as I’m breathing air right now. She calls me Cuz/Sis and at 15 years my senior she feels protective of me while always making sure I know that her check ins and advice are out of love and not an insistence that I follow her suggestions. (As if there was any doubt.)

In college, I added a brother and parents-by-choice. Matty and I are from similar places — small town Iowa vs small town Indiana — and we’re both adopted only children. Both high school band stars, lovers of whiskey, and unwavering sports fans. The kidney transplant he had right before we became friends eventually lead to a lot of hospital waiting room time. He’s doing well carting around his adoptive mother’s kidney — she was a perfect match at million-to-one odds. After  driving him almost three hours to his doctors out of state and studying for tests in hospital hallways with his parents, it seemed silly to introduce him as “my friend Matt.”

We’ve since spent holidays together, gone to funerals and reunions. I very literally would not have survived the past several years without him. And while he would insist that I don’t owe him anything, I can only hope to someday repay his seemingly unending kindness and support in some way. Matty’s parents see me as family and, as far as I know, my parents still consider him family as well. His mom actually sent me one of my favorite Christmas presents of all time: a well-wrapped box with a note that said “Emergency Kit” on the outside and the strongest coffee she could find on the inside. It was a reminder that those who love you get to know you and give of themselves without expectation.

Matty and I both expertly deadpan introductions to new people with matching expressionless faces as one of us says, “This is my brother/sister, Matty/Katie.” We both — a bit unfairly — use the responses to gauge and judge other people. If we get either an honest “Did you say, ‘brother/sister?’” or a snarky “Oh, yeah, I can see the resemblance,” you pass. His parents adopted him from Vietnam in the 70’s and I’m younger, taller, and clearly of some Western European hodge podge descent. (I typically say I’m Irish when small talk rules dictate I don’t have time to describe my family tree and the lack of concrete information.) If you’re going to be weird about family without bloodline connections, we both want to know up front that you’re that sort of person.

I don’t seem to have any of that sort of person left these days and my life is richer for it. I am regularly overwhelmed by the love in my life. I have so many friends who tell me they love me — and they mean it. Their love is full and true and simple. We love each other without limit. They are the support that keeps me together and I couldn’t be more thankful.

Katie Klabusich is a contributing writer for The Establishment and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio. Her work can also be found at Rolling Stone, Truthout, RH Reality Check, and Bitch Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @Katie_Speak.