Recently I had the chance to spend a day with my cousin—technically my second cousin—Tom, who had come into Chicago with his wife Cindy. While Cindy was at a day-long business meeting, Tom and I took a boat tour on the Chicago river in 46 degree weather with a strong, cold wind which kept me looking for icebergs in the water. Toward the end of the cruise, a gust of wind tossed Tom's hat into the water, leaving his head exposed to the elements. Luckily our next stop was Navy Pier, where he bought a new one...and a hooded sweatshirt to wear under his jacket. We then came back to my apartment and, joined by my best friend Gary, we just sat and talked for a couple of hours. (Are you old enough to remember when people simply sat and talked?)
So what was particularly special about all this? Nothing, other than it was the longest single time I'd spent with just Tom in memory, and it reminded me of just how important, necessary, and wonderful family and friends are, and how lost without them we would be. Every human lives every instant of his or her life within the prison/cage of the body...the “self.” We can be in a vast crowd of other humans and yet feel—and in reality be—utterly alone. But there are invisible bridges...links,if you will...between ourselves and a limited number of other humans which reassure us that we are not totally alone. Our family and our friends shield us from the icy winds of “aloneness.”
Of our family/friends links, those to family are probably strongest simply because they are the longest. It's impossible to fully describe these links. Blood and DNA, certainly, but also a commonality of history, experience, and people—of proximity—which creates an indefinable, indescribable bonding. For the majority of people, family is the foundation upon which their lives are built. Those without strong or positive family ties are deprived of one of the basic supports of life and often are invisibly but significantly scarred for life by their absence.
It's a cliché that while we can't pick our family, we can pick our friends, and whereas we have no say regarding to which family we are born into, our friendships are almost always a choice. The bonds of friendship are usually deliberately woven from common interests, outlooks, and attitudes. It could be said we are bound to family with instinctual glue, to friends with threads of interests and intellect.
And because we largely chose our friends, our links to them tend to be far more flexible than family ties. Family is the group of people with whom we share DNA and that cannot be changed. And while friends may ebb and flow throughout our lives, with new ones relatively (no pun intended) easy to add, the “supply” of those in our core family—the people to whom we are directly genetically linked—is largely set at our birth. We can, with a little effort, make any number of friends, but the number of brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles in our core family varies little if at all. There may be a few additions while we're quite young, but for the most part, the “supply” is set. One's number of friends can always be replenished...not so the number of one's family.
With age, human lifespans being what they are, our core, genetically-linked family begins to shrink. Yes, nieces and nephews and cousins go on to produce more people with the same general genetic makeup, but with each succeeding generation the bonds loosen.
Since each core family has two sides, maternal and paternal, it's not uncommon to feel closer to one side than the other. In my case, it was my mom's. While my dad had a half-sister who in turn had two kids, I never felt really close to them. I consider my mother's side to be my core family, and I entered it with a grandfather, an aunt, an uncle, and three cousins. Probably because my three cousins had six children—technically my “second cousins”—I while I was still quite young, I never differentiated “first” from “second.”
And now my parents, grandfather, aunt and uncle, two of my first cousins and one second cousin are gone. Of the eight people in “my generation” of the family, only my cousin Jack and I remain.
I think they call this sort of thing “life.”
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1).