There is an older woman at my church who walks my dogs every Monday and Wednesday. She talks about “her kids” with such pride, that one would think she was related to the 50-pound collie and her Jack Russell brother. She also talks about my mother and I as if we were her own, telling me just this past Sunday that she thinks of us as her family. I replied that there are two types of families, the one that you’re given and the one that you choose. Each kind of family is unique and special and both can be filled with such love and acceptance. If you’re lucky.

I just happen to be one of those incredibly lucky people. My mother and I have a bond that couldn’t be broken with a nuclear weapon, my brother and I share a language all our own. I have a large family who comes together often, sharing in food and conversation, humor and playfulness. Being the second oldest cousin, I have been gifted a unique vantage point: I was able to experience the family solo for a time, but have also watched as we grew one by one by one by one. It has been my joy to watch as each of my cousins were born and, especially, watch them grow up into beautiful adults or teenagers or kindergartners, as the case may be.

Being so lucky, I have felt loved and supported by the family I was born into.

And, yet, I found myself at different stages in my life needing something a little extra, particularly during the time of my parents’ divorce. As any family going through a divorce, our home became a breeding ground for emotion and tension. As much as my parents tried to shield me from their arguments and disagreements, the pain was palpable. Even when no words were exchanged, no heated fights were witnessed, our home had become a battleground, filled with tangible, raw, and heightened emotion.

I found myself seeking refuge at my best friend, Alisha’s house. We often spent time together with each other – OK, often is not the right word. We spent all our time with each other: passing notes in class, calling each other the moment we got home, ICQing until bedtime, weekends and summers by each others’ sides. We were inseparable. Alisha helped make those awkward middle school years pass by with relative ease, and that’s saying a lot.

But what’s more than her glorious friendship, was the family that took me in as one of their own: her mom and dad who picked us up from football games and dances, her aunts and uncles who accepted my presence on family beach vacations, and her brother and sister who welcomed me as an adoptive sibling.

For the first time that I could recall, I had a safe place to escape to when things got tough at home. I had a father-figure who hugged me when he got home from work, who asked me how my day went, who made me feel loved and protected. Her family meant the world to me and her parents reminded me of how safe a relationship could be. At a time when my life felt darkest, they reminded me that I could be in the light.

Years passed and things at home settled down, my father and I even building a relationship together. My affection for Alisha and her family never waned, even as our friendship aged well over a decade. One particular instance has stuck with me, meaning more to me than any ribbon or award I’ve ever won.

Alisha, her father, and her mother came to a production of mine at university. This production was filled with emotion for me: not only was it my first (and only) starring role at school, it was also the first time my father announced he was bringing “a friend” into the fold. This was not something I was emotionally or mentally prepared for, nor was it, in my opinion, the proper forum for such an introduction. My father was angered that I had asked him not to bring this new woman into my life and so, though he attended the show, did not speak to me.

The following day, Alisha and her family attended the second-to-last performance. As I stepped onto the apron for my bow, a body shot up in the audience, a man, my adoptive father, crying and clapping more loudly than anyone else. Tears and an overwhelming sense of pride filled my eyes. Though no blood connected us, we were family. I will always view that moment, that solitary standing ovation, as my single proudest achievement in my life.

From then on, I have been graced with several other adoptive families, friends’ parents whom I lovingly call Momma _____ and Papa _______. I have loved them all, most especially the family I found in my dear friend, Nick.

Two parents, three boys, all with the same sick sense of humor that allows me to fit in with no qualms whatsoever. They are a family that laughs together, a family that celebrates each other, and – my God – a family that loves. They will travel any distance to watch their daughter-in-law crush a marathon or watch as Nick performs in yet another production of Fiddler on the Roof. (Let’s face it, Nick. You’ve done a lot of Fiddlers. It’s like a TRADITION!) This is a family who bases their life on each other – on love – and I count my lucky stars they’ve included me as one of their “each others.”

I could tell you all of the ways this family has made me feel welcome, from Aunt Kim screaming my name with her arms wide open to brother Shawn and his girlfriend reading everything I’ve ever written in one day, but there is one act that reigns above them all.

There was a long period of time when I refused to ask for help from anyone. Some may say I am still in this period of my life. They are probably right. During the time after college, I worked three jobs to make ends meet, only giving myself a Monday evening off for relaxation. I was drowning silently – no health insurance, no assistance, no “can you spot me a $5.” No one, save Alisha (my roommate at the time) knew that with each medical bill, each tax period, each cell phone bill, I cried. A lot.

After a weekend down the shore with Nick’s family, I loaded up the car, suitcases and Nick and Shawn into the little Mazda I called Milo. Hugging Papa goodbye, he slipped me a $20 bill.

“For gas,” he whispered.

I was astonished – mouth stood agape. Since leaving high school, I had never been given gas money. Instantly, ego fought off my heart, stubbornly saying that I was no charity case, I didn’t accept handouts. I’m not weak. But then I looked at this family, gathered on the steps to see us off, and my heart won out. They made me feel safe, secure. They were doing this out of love.

There may be no blood joining me to these families, but there is certainly that, love. And so, for these two families, the one I was given and the others I’ve collected along the way, I am very grateful, very lucky, and oh-so very loved.

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