It’s 4:30 a.m. and, not surprisingly, I can’t sleep. My brain is not adequately developed to process this confluence of milestones. On the one hand, last night marked the passing of Kate’s aunt Dottie, with Kate by her side. On the other hand, this month marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of our parenting journey. On the surface these are events related to one another only by emotional intensity, but there is more entanglement than that.
When Kate and I became parents, there were plenty of things I naively did not expect. That litany of surprises is in and of itself common enough for parents, of course. One thing I was really not prepared for, however (indeed had never given any thought to), was the disparity in reactions to (or degrees of acceptance of) our “non-traditional” family. The community of people who have embraced our daughters (as, indeed, they well should) is substantial and inspiring. It’s also striking, though, how others have struggled with that (or, worse, haven’t perceived that it was important enough to take on said struggle).
Often it’s the sort of careless statements that are in large part society’s fault for failing to create a culture in which all families are embraced, regardless of age or DNA. “That’s nice – do you have any of your own kids?” (these are my own kids) “They must be SO grateful.” (they are, but that’s not their job any more than it’s any kid’s job to get down on his or her knees to give thanks for being cared for) “What about their real parents?” (Kate and I are not mirages. Yes there are birth families and varying degrees of relationships with them) You get the idea. These sorts of comments are innocuous enough, but for the deeper and often un-verbalized way in which so much discrimination manifests.
But there’s a reason that there are so many songs and poems and stories in the world reflecting the sentiment of “love conquers all.” It truly does take a village and as I mentioned above, we have been blessed with some remarkably soulful villagers who have helped us thrive and feel genuinely embraced. And for most of this time, Dottie has been something akin to the grand matriarch of the village.
There were many tangible things she did for us and for our girls. But overriding it all was the most potent thing of all – she loved them. I’ve written plenty in this blog about what love actually means, and I don’t need to get into the semantics of that here. But I will say that watching Dottie love them up with such joy and appreciation was one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever experienced. And seldom have I felt the sort of gratitude that filled me seeing the way this love nourished them. There was never a germ of evidence that she thought of our family as any less authentic than any other. This is the way it is supposed to be.
So the flip side of that is that now she’s gone. All the things they say about the wonder of seeing things through your kids’ eyes? All true, but usually people don’t think of grief and loss in these terms. My kids are no strangers to loss, but this one cuts deep and I am powerless to heal the wounds or to invent a magic pill that could get them to smile in the unique way that only Dottie was capable of inspiring them to. That hurts and I can’t sugar coat it. I will, of course, miss her too, but if all I had to do is put on my big boy pants and deal with my own personal loss, that I could manage.
As far as I can tell, there are three things I can do. One, I can celebrate this legacy of love, which will nourish us all as long as we live. Two, I can (and most certainly will) double down further in my commitment to love my kids with all the heart a human can muster. Three, I can challenge YOU to step up. We’ll be okay, but what about the adoptive families who haven’t had a Dottie? What about the kids who are thirsty for the kind of unbridled warmth that seemed to change the atmosphere whenever Dottie walked into our house? Can we change the culture so that everybody has that? Yes, we can – the only question is whether we will make it a priority.
Dottie was human – an imperfect person and lived an imperfect life. It is not my place or my intention to paint a portrait of a saint who moved on with no baggage, and indeed a broader discussion of her life is not within the scope of this essay (due to both length and sleep deprivation). But her capacity for love made her both a role model and a gift, and for that I will be forever grateful. With 10 years in the bank, it’s almost comically obvious that parenthood has been the deepest, most fulfilling and most important thing in which I have ever participated. I may not be religious in the strict sense, but if any proof is needed of a benevolent higher power, Dottie’s presence in our family for that time provides just that.