April was chaotic. The third weekend, my mom and I drove to Florida to visit her family. Before anyone gets excited and talks of beaches and palm trees, let me specify we were just south of Alabama. Peanuts and pine trees and 3 hours from the beach.

Her parents celebrated 64 years together in January. There’s a very strong possibility there will not be a 65th anniversary. Both are on home hospice. It was hard seeing them, even harder talking to the hospice nurse explain an ever dizzying amount of drugs, while I could not repeat their names, the names were familiar enough to mean the end is near.

My cousin lives on their property with her kids, so she can check on them. My aunt and uncle live just up the road. So it is reassuring to know they are close, yet I do not wish to live closer.

I have written before that blood does not make a family to me, and every visit reminds me of such.

The thing is both grandparents have brothers and sisters. These great aunts and uncles are people I never met. At one point or another they had a falling out with this one and that one, til finally it was just them.

My Dad’s dad is the same way.  It is unknown how many brothers and sister he had.  He hated them all, so it was a strange day in my late 20s when he said I should visit “Mary… MY SISTER” whom I had never heard of before.

So in my life I grew up “knowing” that at any point in time, I could suddenly not have a family.

3 grandparents, 1 aunt, 2 cousins, 1 brother, 2 parents… could suddenly disown me. Maybe my parents would not… but maybe they would… It builds a huge fear factor growing up that you don’t have words to express to your parents.

And then in my early 30s the tables reversed. My grandmother’s family is full of love, and shared it even though she passed away over 25 years ago. My parents and I were at the birthday party of my grandmother’s sister, Dad’s aunt. Grandad walked up to me and proceeded to ask what was wrong with me that I was not dating. I said “I am just not interested” and walked away. He brought his girlfriend to me, “I am dating, a man my age is dating why don’t you date?” Again I made a remark and walked away. This time he cornered me. There was no place for me to go… “What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you dating? What is wrong with you?” I was shaking and biting my lip to keep from crying.

My dad jumped in, and told my grandad off. I don’t know what he said because he told me to leave and I did. Dad told me to treat my grandad the same way he treated me. We stopped talking other than brief hellos. When he fell, his mean streak that had been fairly contained grew out of hand. Women were nothing more than property, so Dad was a buffer IF we said more than hello and how are you to him.

So, when people ask me what family means… I say “love.” Family is not blood. Family is people who love each other, who share a sameness. People who make you feel like you are not a part of them, who may disown you if they feel like it… that’s not family. Family is love.

~ MJ Schrader