29 October 2008

Family is as family does

When I went to college, I experienced the usual culture shock: for example, I could not believe that I lived on a floor with people who had never tasted lefse. More significantly, though, is when my floor mates referred to family, they almost always meant their nuclear family: parents, siblings, maybe the dog. But when I talked about my family, I meant the whole thing. Mom, Dad, and Jess, but also grandmother, 9 sets of aunts & uncles, 22 first cousins, and, by the time I was in college, 10 first cousins once removed. Because I grew up in the town where my parents grew up (they were both born in that town, population 300), and because 8 of the cousins and 4 of the cousins-once-removed grew up there too, “family” applied to a lot of people in my daily life.

Beyond that, though, twice a year or better most everyone on my mom’s side of the family would get together, usually for a family reunion in July/August and again at Christmas (or Easter, or perhaps Thanksgiving). In between, it seemed we were always spending the weekend in Brookings or Eagle Bend or White Bear Lake. When we weren’t gallivanting to see the aunts and uncles and cousins, they were coming home to see us (and the grandparents we shared). Even the California cousins, the ones we knew the least, were never far from our thoughts, because our dad had been really close to them while they were growing up (long before he thought he’d be a father himself).

Many of my college friends/friends in general couldn’t name all their cousins without help; I can give you most of their middle names and birthdays. Five cousins in particular, all boys, were especially important while I was growing up. My family had a very fertile year in 1970-1971, and so I had these five boys two years older than me. All my life, they had gone out into the world, just ahead of me, and reported back on what they found. Even when they weren’t personally reporting back, their mothers were reporting to my mother. I had this whole posse of big brothers, without the conflict that comes with real big brothers. Jonathan, Nathan, Chad, Deron, and Patrick, you guys had more impact on my life than you’ll ever know.

As our shared grandparents died, and we all grew up and married and had families and careers and mortgages of our own, many of our traditions fell away. It’s not as simple as a weekend trip anymore, though all five of them live in Minnesota (well, close enough, Nate) now. The family reunions are more sporadic, and holidays together (can you imagine having 40-50 people over for dinner? We were crazy then. And now it would be closer to 100) are something my mother misses deeply every year. I’m not in close contact with any of my cousins anymore, not on a regular basis. Still, my heart is connected to each of them, and especially these boys, now men in their mid-to-late-thirties.

Since I was a child, we’ve known that Deron had cystic fibrosis. My mom organized bike-a-thons every spring, and my sister and I rode in them. If anyone had a fever or ear infection or sniffles, Deron had to stay away (or, on one memorable trip to Brookings, we stayed in a hotel, because my sister had developed bronchitis on the way down) for fear of infection. Otherwise, though, he was just like the other boys. He played with us, outside and in, and judged coloring contests (fairly, I might add) between his sister and me. For the longest time, it seemed, we knew his life expectancy as 12. This disease was a looming, scary part of his life, but it was also just part of reality. Chad has brown eyes, Nathan has blue, Deron has CF.

There have been frightening turns, from any time Deron had a cold to the more serious, hospitalization-requiring infections. The life expectancy of CF patients has increased over the years, but Deron is nearing the edge of that number once again. He’s near the top of the list for a lung transplant now, and blogs about it and other things here. When I first found his blog (through his comment awhile back about twins) I was suddenly horribly self-conscious. How can I blither on about shopping and coupons and Vegas when he’s blogging, quite literally, about life and death?

Turns out, I can’t. I mean, I can, and I will, shortly, revert back to blithering. It’s what I do best. But I really struggled with this. In the end, the only thing I can do is to ask you, dear readership, to send as much positive energy as you can spare toward Deron. He would rather you pray for him, I imagine, but I know some of you don’t do that, so I’m asking for whatever you have to offer in its stead. Good vibes, karmic light and hope, wishing on stars, whatever you can muster. Check out his blog, if you like. And if you and yours aren’t organ donors yet, for the love of pete, get on that. I hope truly that no tragedy ever touches you, but it will, and when it does I hope you will choose to donate all organs possible to those who need them. It’s not enough to have it on your driver’s license. Tell your parents and/or spouse and make them pinky swear that they’ll follow through with your wishes if it ever comes to that. Because otherwise, if while we’re here we can’t even learn to share what we no longer even need, what hope do any of us have for this life or the next?


Deron Arnold said...

Thanks, Jennifer, that was really neat.

One of the things I regret the most with this disease is that I haven't been able to travel as much as I'd like to our family reunions.

That'll change after transplant, Lord willing. I really want the boys to get to know the whole family.

Dawn Mason said...

Hi Jennifer. I appreciate this post.

I don't remember the coloring contest, are you sure you won?

Jennifer said...

Dawn: I'm TOTALLY sure I won. Because you drew the sky as about 1.5" of blue on the top of the page, and I drew the sky all the way to the horizon.

I'm sure it was just because I'm a year older, not because of my sky genius-ness. But I TOTALLY WON. Seriously.

Wanna have a re-match?