The other day I went visiting an old friend who had had a sinus operation. When I approached her bed, she had covered half her face with her blanket. She cautiously uncovered it to reveal a large wad of gauze and plaster right under her nose, making it look enormous and bulbous. It would have been comical had I not felt very sympathetic for her condition. Besides she was like family to me. And it’s not nice to laugh at family in distress. My friend was soon discharged from hospital and recovering nicely at home.
Then I got to thinking. Who’s my family? And I soon began to realize that family isn’t just your biological family. It’s a lot more than father, mother and siblings. Family can be the friend who works as a curator at the National Museum, whom you’ve known for over a decade, and travelled to the furthest corners of Northern Kenya with. The same woman, whose kids you ‘adopt’ regularly to go watch a movie with, followed by a bout of ice-cream eating. Family can be the old childhood friend, whom you’ve accompanied through teenage, and adulthood. The friend whose father neglected to support his family and started a new one, then tried to run for public office and ran up a Ksh 1 million loan debt; the same friend who now has a little baby girl, whom you held in your arms not very long ago. Family can be the ex girlfriend, who’s helped you when your parents died and trusts you with her money more than she does her brothers. The woman who’s entire family knows you so well that their mother calls you her daughter.
Family is the neighbour next door, whom you can confide in about your neurological disorder and ask to take you to hospital if you should ever get sick. Family is the woman who’s name you put down under ‘next of kin’ on the hospital form, the day you have your first MS relapse, that’s made you numb from your toes up to your waist, leaving you in a panic.
And sometimes biological family lets you down – maybe even disowns you. It could be your own parent who feels you’ve brought shame on the family name. It could be your own sister who feels she has nothing in common with you and that it’s best to go separate ways. Or the sibling who is so private, he doesn’t want to reveal a serious mental illness that he has lived with for years. Sometimes you yourself let your biological family down – often unintentionally.
Diverting away from humans, we can explore family amongst animals. Family is the cat you keep at home, who sleeps on your feet or curls up in your lap every evening, giving you companionship and affection. Family is the pet dog who protects you. Family could even be that parrot you keep at home, who greets you with “I’m home dear! Love you!” or screeches at unfamiliar visitors.
It seems to me that family is more about shared interests, love, humour, common work, affection, mutual support, companionship and visits to each others homes. It’s about trust, empathy and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies and characters even though you don’t necessarily understand them. Family is about understanding each other’s hardships, giving them a listening ear when they need it and growing old together.