For 18 years of my life, I grew up with a mother, a father, and a brother. My dad was a doctor, my mom was a lawyer, my brother and I went to a great school, and it was pretty much suburban bliss. My parents were married for years and years, and they still had regular “date nights” like two high schoolers. My friends always asked me what it was like to have parents who were so visibly in love.
When my dad died in 2009, everything changed. I don’t quite know how to explain it, other than it seemed like no one really knew their role in the family. He died in February, and only six short months later I headed off to college, five hours away. I didn’t get the send-off I imagined, and I didn’t feel like I was starting college in the best place, but it was what it was.
A year passed, and freshman year came to an end. I packed up my first dorm, said my goodbyes to my new best friends, and headed back to my hometown. Only this time, I wasn’t heading to the big house my family had bought when I was in middle school. I wasn’t going to unpack my things in the house that my parents thought would be “perfect for their future grandchildren.” Instead, I unloaded my college suitcases into the smaller house my mom bought, tired of spending her time alone in the big, silent house filled with memories of my dad.
Once again, things were weird. I felt uncomfortable in my “home.” I felt a void, but had trouble explaining it. I was anxious to get back to campus, and eager to get back to the life I’d started creating in Tennessee.
When I came home for the holidays, my mother was dating. That felt odd to me. I’d heard my friends talk about their parents dating…. They’d talk about their mom’s boyfriend or their dad’s new wife. That wasn’t my family though. We were a traditional, “normal” family. There were no “steps” or “halves” in my family tree. Yeah, my dad was gone, but my mom dating? That just didn’t sound right.
I lashed out a lot, and it’s safe to say that I drove my mom and brother absolutely crazy every time I came home. It seemed like everything I did and said came from a place of anger. This wasn’t the life I wanted and dammit, someone needed to be punished. At one point, my family tried to rationalize my resentment. My mom told me, “Your brother and I live in this town, without your father. We’ve come to terms with this reality, and we’ve started moving forward. You come home for the holidays, and things aren’t like you always imagined they’d be. You dreamed of coming home to your old house, with both of your parents.”
I realized she was right, of course, but this new self-awareness didn’t change my attitude. As much as I love my family and as much as they love me, I think they breathed a sigh of relief every time I packed up my Jetta and headed back to Vanderbilt.
When my mom met Richard, things felt different. Not with me, of course– I was still the vindictive, angry, self-pitying girl that I was every time I came home. Things were different because I slowly saw a family forming, and it was one that I didn’t feel I was part of. My mom and Richard had formed this hilarious, loving partnership, constantly working on new “projects” together, and doting on each other in their silly Southern accents. My brother was falling in love with his perfect girlfriend, and they just completed each other. The worst part, though, was the new siblings I suddenly had.
I’m the baby of my family, as well as the only daughter. I liked it that way. Richard, however, has one son and two daughters. Suddenly my mom was telling me sweet anecdotes about them, constantly praising them for their kindness and generosity. Ugh. Oh, and get this: Richard’s youngest daughter, aka the new baby of the family… her name is Caroline. I’d been replaced by a nicer, sweeter Caroline.
When I met Jenn and Caroline, it was just as bad as I’d imagined. They were giggly, kindhearted, and welcoming. They were sisters but also best friends, and it was the kind of relationship I’d always wanted myself. It was clear that they had already formed a great connection with my mom. Worst of all, they had an unbelievably close relationship with their father. Richard claims to be a hard-ass, but he’s a complete softie with his girls. When I saw their bond, and the way Richard looks at his daughters, I was pissed. I was jealous. I wanted that, and I wanted my dad.
My feelings stayed like this for a bit. In my head, I’d decided that my family and their family could blend happily, but I’d just excuse myself. I’d do my own thing, and I’d be cordial whenever we were all together. I didn’t need a new dad, I didn’t need new sisters, and I certainly didn’t need to pretend to be happy.
I wish I could tell you that I suddenly grew up, stopped being such a self-centered little brat, made a public apology to everyone, and became the social chair of the family. Not quite. Instead, I just kept going home. I wasn’t thrilled about the new set-up, but a girl needs her mom. During my senior year, I watched my mom marry Richard in the same church I said goodbye to my dad. In that moment, I realized that I needed to start trying. My mom didn’t plan for this. My mom had her heart broken, and found genuine love again– why am I not celebrating this? Why aren’t I rejoicing in my new family, and accepting it like the gift that it is?
When my dad was sick, he never felt sorry for himself. Instead, he constantly worried about the people he was leaving behind. He didn’t want his death to leave a gaping hole in our lives, so big that we couldn’t recover. My mom knew that the last thing my father would want is for her to sit around an empty house, mourning the future they wouldn’t have together. She found the courage to put herself back out there, because she knew he would want that. Every time I tried to fight change, and every time I cried over our “new normal,” I was doing the very thing my dad was so scared of.
Things weren’t perfect after that. I struggled with my own personal demons, and I finally made peace with my dad’s death– better late than never, right? The most beautiful, wonderful, astounding, and inexplicable thing was that, when I finally got my sh*t together, Richard, Jenn, and Caroline were waiting for me with open arms.
Sitting here and writing this is so strange, because I struggle to rationalize why I was so hesitant to embrace my new family. I really can’t imagine why I would be anything but grateful and elated to gain my new siblings. Rich is outspoken, hilarious, and was the first one I bonded with. Jenn is thoughtful, happy-go-lucky, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. Caroline is loving, gentle, and has one of the most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen. If I had the chance to handpick new siblings, I would choose them, a million times over.
Despite all the growing pains over the last years, I am grateful that I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that when friends walk out, family is there (even if it’s only because they have no choice). I’ve learned that it’s never too late to get the sisters I prayed for as a child. I’ve learned that life never goes as planned, but it’s always possible to find something wonderful in the chaos. Finally, I’ve learned that there is never a reason to put up walls and reject love that’s being offered to you. And when it comes to family, the more the merrier.