Other families get their philosophies from Kierkegaard or Sartre. We get ours from Disney. One of our favorites is “Lilo and Stitch.” The Fisher-Paulson version: A lost boy with anger issues gets dropped on an island where everything is alien to him. He finds a home with a girl named Lilo, whose sister says, “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
Family is not random. There is a magic in whom we choose, whom we do not forget.
Brian and I chose each other as husbands in a wedding ceremony that had no legal weight 30 years ago. We chose Zane, then Aidan, long before a judge signed adoption papers. We choose to call those triplets, somewhere in the world, “our babies,” even though they don’t remember us. We chose Krypto, Buddyboy and Bandit as our pets, though it’s likely they own us instead.
Most of our blood relatives live on the East Coast, but Zane and Aidan’s family are the “uncles” who come to Sunday dinner, the “aunts” who cheer at the soccer games, the “auncles” who plant apple trees in the backyard. The boys have only two legal cousins, but they have kin everywhere.
Uncle Jon is generally regarded as a superior uncle not because of the rock grinder he bought Aidan for his birthday but because he has been there since when Zane was still portable.
Some are aunts without knowing it. Take Stephanie Ann Schrandt Boone, a.k.a. SASB (her e-mail is SASB, and Aidan — always one to abbreviate — decided that it was a good nickname for her), for instance. About eight Octobers ago, Brian was on a dance tour of Peru, and at about the 10th day of me being alone with my children, I conceded to taking them to the McDonald’s at Stonestown Mall (it has the advantage of having only one door, so I knew they couldn’t escape).
In line in front of me was a very beautiful but very tired-looking woman. The minute she ordered Happy Meals, I knew whence came her fatigue. I turned around to see that Zane and Aidan had gravitated to a table with two other children (a boy and a girl). and all four were taking turns on an iPad.
“Yours?” I asked. We were both grateful that this was San Francisco, and neither one of us had to explain why our children appeared to be a different race than we were.
Somewhere in the course of that McDinner, we found out we had nothing in common other than a commitment to our spirited children. She and her husband are both lawyers, which normally would not have made it past my deputy sheriff prejudices. What I liked about SASB’s husband was that he did not look ashamed or uncomfortable when he said, “My son wants to dress as Batgirl for Halloween.” He said it as a matter of fact, with maybe just a hint that I might be better than he at finding Batgirl costumes.
Often we meet someone and say, “We really should get together again,” then never do. But not SASB. She said that she would call, and she did. They came to Zane’s softball games. We met for bowling. Miniature golf.
By the next January, they suggested a trip to Tahoe. And SASB wasn’t upset when we slid her posh SUV down the ice and into a cabin. She was troubled only later, when her son threw a tantrum about the game Sorry, screaming and pounding on the wooden floor.
But Brian and I were delighted. On the Zane Richter Scale, this was a minor temblor, a 2 or 3 at best, and yet her son trusted us enough to have an episode. Over a glass of wine an hour later, the children asleep, we toasted, as we always do, “the best little boys and girl in the whole world.”
We have returned to the mountains every year since, even if the snow hasn’t.
I thought back to a time years ago, when we were taking care of Tim, who was dying of AIDS, and the pain got bad, so one night, after family dinner, he went to his bedroom and swallowed a bottle of pills. We found him, called an ambulance, and at 3 in the morning in San Francisco General Hospital, as Tim sipped his charcoal milk shake, I asked why, and he shrugged, “You don’t think I was going to attempt suicide at a stranger’s house?”
Tim may be a ghost, but he’s very much an uncle.
Which brings me back to Stitch, who says at the end of the movie. “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.”
Republished with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle.