The Common Good
January-February 1999

What Is Family?

by Kristine Jensen | January-February 1999

It is a clear fall day in 1986 and I am walking the block home from the bus stop. It is
my second month of high school; I am 13, a freshman, an artist.

It is a clear fall day in 1986 and I am walking the block home from the bus stop. It is my second month of high school; I am 13, a freshman, an artist. I am thinking about my new dog-sitting job; I will soon have enough money to buy a box of pastels I have been wanting. My brother, Carl, who is 10, is drawing with chalk on the sidewalk outside of our house. I am in a good mood; I stop and draw hair on one of his figures, and then stomp into the house, letting the screen door slam behind me.

The first sign that something is wrong is my mother's absence; she is typically in the kitchen or at her desk. Since the death of our father several years ago, the three of us are very close. My mom and I usually talk together while I eat an after-school snack. Then we read books or go for long walks with my brother.

I go looking for her and see that she has pulled the kitchen phone into the garage. I can hear her murmuring behind the closed door. All of a sudden I am nervous. I step closer and place my ear to the door. "Cancer," she whispers. Cancer.

Two weeks later she undergoes a massive operation for throat cancer. Surgeons remove one of her eyes and most of her jaw and sew up her face with rough black stitches. Carl and I visit her in the intensive care unit. When the nurses warn us that seeing her will be bad, my tough, independent brother takes my hand. It is worse than bad, her face is swollen and unrecognizable. She isn't supposed to wake up, but she does, and I hold her head while she retches. She collapses back on the pillow, her hands seeking ours. I take one hand. The other one searches blindly for my brother. He is collapsed in the corner, in a blind fetal position, sobbing soundlessly. He seems impossibly small. I take her other hand, and hold it in mine.

She survives the operation and comes home, but desperate to care for us and terrified for our fate, our mother pushes herself too hard. At night, Carl and I sneak into her room and listen to her ragged breathing. Carl becomes ghostlike, quiet. I am tense and rigid. I work harder in school, trying to maintain control over a life that is slipping away from me.

Several months pass like this before she collapses as we are coming home from the library. Diagnosed with terminal spinal and lung cancer, she is unable to care for us or herself and is in and out of the hospital. Our already isolated family grows even more so as we learn to conceal what is happening. We know that children are not allowed to live by themselves, which we do when she goes to the hospital. Our mother's greatest fear, and ours, is that social services will find out what is going on and take us away.

For two years there are more operations and chemotherapy. Alone, Carl and I cook solemn, careful meals together. We do our homework, play cards, squabble and joke with each other, trying to maintain our shattered sense of family. When mom is at home, Carl and I try to care for her, a task at which we are woefully inadequate. At night we often drag our pillows and blankets into her room and sleep on the floor near her bed.

She loses her ability to walk and talk, and then stops recognizing who we are. Her torment is constant and she finally must return to the hospital for the last time. She dies a week later. I am 16 years old and Carl is 13.

Throughout everything, my brother and I have been each other's family and home. With our mother's death we entered a terrifying and unknown realm. We belong to each other but, orphaned, whose kids are we? Social services becomes a part of our lives. Carl and I bounce around for a summer, staying with different people while a decision is being made about what to do with us. The case worker explains that it will be hard to place us because of our age and because we want to stay together. She confides that we are the only kids in her caseload who are not in abusive situations. Carl and I talk about these other, unplaceable kids; too old, of color, with a disability. Who is family to them? Carl and I begin to ask the questions that will dominate our search for identity, community, and rootedness in the world. How do we preserve family with each other and find a place in the world? What is family beyond that which we are born into?

My brother and I are fortunate. Our stay in the foster care system is mercifully brief as our aunt signs guardianship papers for us. Although we never live with her, through her support and the assistance of the church near our house we find a young woman, Stephanie, who is willing to live with us. She is wonderful, funny, and incredibly centered.

Carl and I also become close to a family down the street and are drawn into their network of friends and family. Both of these relationships become home to us, and provide a support system that strengthens the partnership between Carl and I and enables us to make decisions together about our future.

Ten years after our mother's death, one of the most powerful things in my life has been this experience of community and family that Carl and I have created with others. As adults, Carl and I have strong and supportive networks of friends and peers. Alone as teen-agers, we needed (and still need) the people that shared their families with us, that defined family as something more than blood, something that had room for my brother and me and that supported our own bonds to each other.

What we learned from their example goes beyond simple caretaking to a stance of radical openness toward the world and to life, a refusal to define and insulate self and family against an "other." In a fragile and tenuous world, this is where we find home.

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