Thursday, February 3, 2011


Family is one of those words that has a whole slew of meanings to me. The Hawaiian word for family is ohana, but the Hawaiian definition is often extended well beyond the walls of the immediate family unit. I tend to restrict my thoughts on the world "family" to the 5 people I know of who share substantial portions of my dna.

I would imagine we all create our own definition of the word as we stumble through the transitions between infant, adolescent, adult and senior citizen. The photo above includes all of the descendants of my parents at various stages of cognizance of the world around them. And, while it seems that no actual progress has been made on my own family front, I can say that the last year has marked the first time in my life when I think I know more parents than non-parents. The topic does seem to come up on a daily basis for me, partly because it's so interesting to think about the concept of giving life to another creature and partly because of all the complexity surrounding the commitments involved in such an endeavor.

I know a few single parents, some of whom are dating and I have to admit that I find their lives ironically simpler than my own. There is no ambiguity about who they are going to have children with, that decision has already been made. There is also no biological clock ticking away, their clock has already started and they are making progress towards the eventual goal of a healthy, happy, independent human. I'm obviously glossing over the tremendous amount of work that is involved in being a single parent, but I do think the lack of uncertainty allows for clarity of vision and lowers certain types of stress.

I know of quite a few adults who have aged past the point of having biological children. Some are happy about the decision to not contribute towards world overpopulation, it seems fairly common to forego the option for kids, particularly among the educated athletic crowd I find myself immersed in. Others may have searched for life and love and found themselves still searching, perhaps with modified plans for adopting or an acceptance that they may never become a parent.

I also know my fair share of happy adult couples with the beginnings of a family. Most of my high school and college friends who got married over the past decade are in this situation and seem to be on pace with the modern definition of how a family is built. As I interview kids applying to my school, I get a taste of what life is like for a high school senior, and how it differs from my experiences in 1992. Listening to my classmates talk about the price of tuition also brings back memories of some of the struggles and fears that surround the concept of family. The closest I've come is the roughly 10 years I've been a father to my dog, Hunter, which is of course orders of magnitude easier than raising a child, and yet somewhat sad as well because of how short a dogs life is by comparison to a human's.

I arrived home (see my prior blog for the meaning of that word to me) today, for my 3rd trip to Oahu in as many months. This time there are 9 of us in the house my father lives in, including his girlfriend, Gerri, my sister and brother-in-law, my newphew Carter, and my sister's 3 girls, Juniper, Clementine and Hazel (pictured above.) It's definitely different here, now, with all of us, than it was during my last two trips. And while I like to think my family is boderline traditional in some respects, it's also somewhat sad to think about the 2 who died too young, Gavin's first daughter, and my mother, both of whom I would suspect might enjoy these moments far more than I ever will.

One of the high school students I recently interviewed has a mother who is a dentist in the Navy and has grown up all over the globe. I reflect back on my own life and realize that my only real international travel (since you can't count Mexico or Canada as international) was done with my mother, father, and sister over 20 years ago. There is something unique and special to what a family does, how it operates, and how memories are written in indelible ink amongst the presence of children that simply does not exist in adult life. Now, I'm not lamenting the joys of sleeping in, drinking, exercising for 8+ hours, or spending the day living out of your car in the sunshine of southern California or Hawaii. How could I say that doesn't completely rule? And yet, while I have those friends who are content with their dogs and their endless summer lifestyle, to me there is one major piece missing to my life.

Part of the impetus of the 3 trips I've carved out of my schedule these last few months is to reconnect with my father. He is a great man, a wonderful man, a man who sacrificed his young adult years in a hospital so that babies would live and so that we could eat and play and go to an expensive private school and not have to worry about anything at all. He is a man who is now, finally, rewarding himself with a few of life's indulgences, some travel, a lot of dancing, some good food, and a home with a view that is iconic and borderline postcard worthy. It is incredibly sad that his life partner, the woman who made those same sacrifices alongside him, the woman who raised my sister and I, is not here to enjoy all of that with him. I know things would be different for him if she were, and though he is not sad, there is most definitely a part of him which will always miss her and wonder what-if?

Now, with my sister and I bordering on a level of minimal maturity, and with my sister having cranked out 3 little girls, the concept of family has completely mutated. With my dad and I, we can share time as men, and it's a fact that he has more energy to go out at night than I do, so while there is an inequitable divide in terms of life experience, I consider us as two peers in some sense, two men trying to figure out wtf we are doing with our lives. When it's my sister and I, the traditional roles of brother/sister are replaced by an almost complete focus on the children, so it's mommy, uncle david, and daddy Gavin as our roles by necessity. Then when my dad is around my sister he assumes a role of grandfather, in a way not unlike how he is kind to Hunter, and hopefully with slightly more interest in what they have to say/mumble.

When we all get together, it's nothing like it used to be when I was younger. For one, my mom wore the pants and set the schedule, made the rules, enforced order, and handed out all the instructions. She was damn good at it too.

But at this point in our lives, we can remember, and we can celebrate her life and what she might be like now, but we have to define it all for ourselves every day. And the truth is, while my sister might have an idea of what "family" should be, I don't think my dad or I have any freaking clue.

Perhaps that is the simple mars/venus truth of it all. Are men incapable of building a family on their own without a woman? I suppose I might hear differently from my homosexual male friends on that topic, although I can't think of any who are raising children of their own. And I'm certain I can think of at least one or two women who rely on their man to help define the family unit, to schedule, shuffle, juggle, shuttle, and supervise. And sometimes to just "shrug" it off and let the absurdity be whatever it is and laugh about it sometime later, when the cost of whatever repair or ER visit has been forgotten.

I hear lots of stories about 50 year old men having babies with younger women. I can see how that might happen, both for a man who already had one set of kids and wants to try to build a new family because the first one didn't work for some reason, and for the man who was just having too much fun for too long and finally woke up one day and realized he was missing out on one of the most fundamental and important tasks of our own humanity. I know I don't want to be 50 and dating a 35 y/o. I know I don't want to be 70 and attending a college graduation. I owe it to any children I might have to give them a few of my better years, before I get grumpy, old, crusty, and rusty like my dog.

I suppose at the core of it all I am still waiting to define what the word "family" will mean to me as an adult.

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