“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
― George Bernard Shaw
I am a word person. Always have been. I've been in love with vocabulary for all of my conscious life. And, for that reason, when I want to get to the heart of the matter, I always go first to the dictionary. Merriam Webster dictionary defines family in this way:
As you can see, MOST people don't need to look this one up since its popularity is pretty darn low. Only 1% of people who consult MW are looking for the word family.
"Family" is a deeply personal word and one that conjures up a lot of different images for people. It can be a warm word that means love, laughter, Thanksgiving dinner, adventures and fun. It can be a sad word conveying loss or shame. Or, it can be painful and filled with scars, tears and silence. It can even be hopeful, fat with the promises of marriage, babies and future domestic bliss.
For me, family is a complicated word. My mother was never married to my biological father. My stepfather told me when I was six that HE was not my father but didn't bother telling me who was and threatened my life if I told my mother I knew. And I spent more than half of my life wondering about who the REST of my family was. What was my father's name? What did he look like? Did he ever think about me? Did he have a REAL family?
The truth is simple but often complicated when it comes to families. In truth, my biological father held no legal or moral responsibility for me. He walked away clean after signing away his parental rights at the request of my mother. He was kind enough, along with his lovely wife, to meet me when I was 36 and came looking for him. We have developed a nicely loose relationship over the last years and I am grateful that I now have answers that haunted me for so long.
But life is never neat and tidy. I met B, one biological half-sister and connected immediately with her. Nature vs. nurture was answered immediately for me when I met B. We have so many similarities from the rhythm of our speech to the fact that we both named our youngest sons "Jackson." B had a full sister, L, who wasn't ready to meet me all those years ago. Two other half-siblings were (and remain) lost to me.
My life, since meeting my father, has changed dramatically. It was the impetus for change in me and in my choices. It was almost as if I needed that missing piece to clink into place before I could get down to the business of living. When you know where you come from, it seems to be easier to envision where you might go.
A few weeks ago, I heard a ding announcing I had a new message. I looked and the message was from Kelly L. Kelly. She told me that she was the biological daughter of JL and was looking for other siblings she might have.
Kelly L. Kelly L. Kelly L.
My breath caught in my chest. She HAD MY NAME. I have always joked that Tilyard is the only legitimate name I've ever had. I was Kelly S. on my birth certificate. My mother started calling me Kelly N. after she married. When I found out my biological father's name, I said I COULD be Kelly L. And, finally, I took the name of my (now ex) husband, I legally became Kelly Tilyard.
But Kelly L. Kelly L...
After I breathlessly read the message to The Boyfriend, I must have looked at him somewhat wild-eyed. He gently said, "Well, are you going to answer?"
I did answer. I told her that I was his biological daughter and that SHE was, indeed, my half-sister. We connected quickly and I spoke to her the first time the next day and we pieced together the little we both knew. I found out that she had met my biological grandmother also and had pictures of our biological father from when he was in her life as a young girl. I won't share her story here because it isn't mine to tell, but I know that we were mutually thrilled to have found another long-lost half-sibling.
She wanted to meet. After all, she was finding a sister whom she didn't know existed and...well, so was I. And, after all, we share a name! We arranged a meeting of a big group of our family, our father, his wife and their two children...our two half-sisters. I had already met B but was thrilled that L was ready to meet me, too.
We had a good day, the six of us plus Kelly's fiancé. We found many, many commonalities among the four of us sisters as well as some marked differences, too. (OK, I just don't like the VIOLENCE of football...) But that's just the way it is with all sisters, isn't it?
We skipped all the years of petty jealousies, of fights over clothes and boys. Of pecking order establishment. But we also missed that bond...that "us against them" mentality. We missed years of laughter and of tears. We missed marriages, births, trials and triumphs. Kelly and I both have brothers whom we are grateful for. But neither of us has ever had a sister.
I don't know what causes a parent to walk away from a child. I know that I have no animosity toward my biological father. Life is complicated. And it's messy. I get that. He did what he did. And I am who I am because of...or perhaps in spite of...never knowing him growing up. I know that I can love him for the now that we have. And I have nothing to forgive...because he did nothing wrong by me.
But sisters. I have sisters. And I have a promise for them...for B...and for L...and for K. I will always love you. My door is always open to you. I don't always say the right thing. I am selfish and opinionated and often wrong...about everything. I am not great about keeping in touch and birthday cards sometimes remain unmailed for years at a time. But, I will always be on the the other end of the phone or the road or the thought. Sisters. From now on.
We are family. I've got all my sisters with me.
Thank you, Kelly. Thank you for being brave. Thank you for finding me.
Author's Note: This was a tough post to write. It's taken me a week to sort out how I feel about meeting two new sisters last week and I feel like I have to be very careful because, again, these stories don't belong to me alone. Like I said, it's complicated. But I needed to write it out. And to share it. Because families, like life, are sometimes messy. And it's good for all of us to understand that we are not alone in navigating the chaos. I, personally, like to bring the chaos close to me. When I see it up close, I can better understand it.
How do you handle your own complicated family?
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