This week I received bad news from both of my parents. My mom’s sister, my aunt, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a couple of years ago. She had been on medications but they had stopped working and the symptoms have gotten worse. My mom has been predictably worried sick and stressed out by the situation. Managing any disease is stressful, and degenerative disease can be especially emotionally cruel. It’s hard for the patient to slowly and painfully lose her basic abilities, and heartbreaking for those close to her to watch. My mom is currently looking for the best treatments possible for my aunt, but given various factors, it’s not an easy task.
Earlier this week I also got a call from my dad, who had just recently returned from China. The first thing he told me was that my great-grandmother’s health has suddenly deteriorated. They found problems with several of her organs; they have no idea how long she has left. My great-grandmother is 95. My dad’s mother had died when he was only a teenager, and he and his sisters were mostly raised by their grandmother. To my dad and my aunts, my great-grandmother is practically their mother. Even though my great-grandmother has lived a relatively good and long life, saying goodbye to a loved one is never easy.
These two incidents have led me to reflect quite a bit on the meaning of family. I have always somewhat struggled with the significance of family. When I was younger, I took its importance as given, because that’s just what I was told. Family always came first; of course my parents loved me and I loved them in return. What bothered me, however, was this failed to explain how I was particularly close to some members of my family, while not at all to the rest. And then there were the friends that I loved almost as much as I loved my family, if not equally. So mere blood relations did not seem like a reasonable explanation for the significance of these relationships. For a while, I thought the depth of a relationship and love was only dependent on how the people within that relationship acted, and had nothing to do with biology. I think I still stand by this view. The difference is I have come to understand one cannot separate love and relationships from their contexts, and being a family (through biology, marriage, parenthood, etc.) is perhaps one of most powerful contexts there is for fostering love.
The context of family, through various ways, makes the relationships formed within it irreplaceable. I used to think that this was because of the biological connections, but that is actually not quite true. The biological argument neglects family relationships involving adopted children and even spouses. Biology does play a roll in the parent-child bonding process, but it does not fully explain the love that motivates parents to do almost anything for their children’s well being. That love is better explained by the complete dependency a child has when it arrives in the world. That is how parents’ lives are forever changed with the arrival of a child. It is often the first incidence when an individual will be motivated to give everything they have to another human being, around the clock, endlessly. This enormous amount of giving, I believe, is what forms the special bond between a parent and a child.
Another common family relationship is that of siblings. I can only speak to this based on my observations of other people with siblings. So correct me if what I am about to write is incorrect. I suspect the bond between siblings is one of shared experiences and shared background. To share your childhood in this most intimate way is not an insignificant thing. I imagine it to be akin to the building of close friendships (i.e. think college friendships fostered between dorm-mates), and then elevate it by ten folds. It is through this sharing of parents, house, rooms, meals, possessions, and a myriad of experiences growing up, that the siblings’ identities inevitably intertwine and an irreplaceable bond is formed.
Family relationships are interesting to me because unlike friendships and romantic relationships, they have very little if anything to do with our temperaments, personalities, and interests. Now I do think those things matter, and having compatibility in those aspects usually mean closer relationships even among family members. However, I would postulate that the strength of familial bonds is independent of those things. From my reflections of family relationships, I have come to realize a few things about love. Circumstances, whether that’s biology or compatibility, provide the initial desires to engage in a set of actions. The accumulation of these actions is what becomes love. Love is the summation of giving and sharing.