We’ll Be There
April 13, 2022
Cecilia Watt (she/her/hers), Low Entropy Volunteer Writer
My dad, like many, was full of sayings, quotes, jokes and idioms. One that he recycled every once in a while when the situation called for it was “You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your relatives.” It always made me laugh, and I always thought it was true. On the more intellectual side, he liked to quote the opening line of Anna Karenina, by Russian author Leo Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As a child, both sayings seemed inapplicable to my life: yes, there were a few questionable uncles here and there, but for the most part, we all got along and we were a happy family at our core. The thing is, when you start to grow up, you grow into all the feelings you had as a child that you never quite knew how to process before. You grow tall enough to see the cracks that had been there all along, and you become a part of them.
The first few years of my 20s were marked by tragedy and loss that found myself and my family swallowed whole by those same cracks that we had all done our best to ignore for years. I was left angry for many reasons, and I wondered why I couldn’t have had a big family that was strong enough to sustain the cracks. At the time, when it was all such a fresh break, I remembered my dad’s sayings about unhappy families and not being able to pick whom your blood ties you to, and I thought, “He was right; I just wish he wasn’t right about us.”
I have four, much older than me, half-siblings. I had relationships (no matter how complex or strained) with all four of them until our dad’s death; two years on, I only speak to one and her two children, who are much closer to me in age and two of my most favourite people in the world. My mum, with whom I am very close, has similar issues with her own siblings, and has since I was a kid. My mum and I are incredibly close. We always have been, to an extent, but the loss of our favourite person and walking through such a horrible time together has made us understand each other in a way we couldn’t before. Because of this, and because of the distance between us and our extended families, I’m very protective of her and she of me: we’re all we have. At least, that’s what I thought.
Three days before my dad’s funeral, people began to arrive in the small town that my parents and I had called home for 20 years. My mum’s two best friends, whom she had known since kindergarten and her early 20s, respectively, arrived first. They swept in, wrapping my mum in the love she so lacked from our family. They cooked for us, cleaned for us, laughed and cried with us, polished our shoes and helped us make all the little decisions you don’t have time for when you’re sad. They sat front row with us at the funeral, acting as our pillars of support and defence. My friends, whom I grew up with, came next. They were grieving my dad too, and they came to my childhood home as they had so many times before, with our favourite snacks and memories. They sat with me and we said how happy my dad would be to see us all together again, back from school and adult life. The night before the funeral, my best friends from university came. I went to university in my hometown, so they had gotten to know my parents and the rest of my family. We sat on the floor by the fireplace in my living room, and they reassured me that the speech I was due to give the next day would be beautiful and perfect. When I said, “You know, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” my friend Caiti shut me down quickly, saying, “Our schedule is cleared, tomorrow is all about you, we want to be there and we’ll be there.”
And they were; they all were. I stood at the pulpit to give my speech, and when I looked at my siblings, I felt the coldness, the distance that had been created. When I looked to my left, the pews had been filled with friends from every corner of my life, my mother’s life, my father’s life, people I expected to come and people I didn’t: coworkers, classmates, acquaintances. There were my friends, smiling up at me through tears, but smiling nonetheless, brightly, warmly, openly. At that moment I knew that, in this, my dad had been wrong. I had chosen my family, and they had chosen me. My mother watched me from the front pew, surrounded by her two best friends, her family who loved her through everything and would continue to do so. We were going to be alright; we had that family we had dreamed of.
Family division is painful, and I agree with Tolstoy that every family is divided in a different way. I don’t think that blood constitutes family; I think it’s a foundation for love to grow, but sometimes, it doesn’t work out. You cannot choose your relatives, but you can choose what is best for your health and well-being. You absolutely can choose your family: you can choose the people with whom you want to share your best and worst and middle with. What makes a true family is acceptance, understanding, joy, empathy, the ability to grieve and hold each other through everything — all qualities I saw the day of my father’s funeral, shining back at me from the faces of my friends, my family.
Cecilia Watt is a recent university graduate taking a few years off before grad school to focus on all the little joys in life, such as chai lattes, good books and listening to music while going for walks.
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