Blood and Water

For the first eighteen months I lived in Washington Heights, the best part of my early mornings was the 7:42 a.m. A-train subway conductor. Most people, myself formerly included, don’t pay attention to the subway conductor, either woefully stuck with the same disembodied robot voice announcing that “The next stop is 42nd Street,” or a muffled and disgruntled voice ordering everyone to “Stand clear of the closing doors (please).” But in my first few months in the Heights, I noticed that if I left my apartment by about 7:35, I would get on the same train, where the conductor always sounded like he was in a good mood, and strayed far from the typical conductor script. On Mondays, he’d tell us “Welcome back from the weekend! This is a downtown bound A express train,” and every day at every stop, he’d announce “This is [station stop] – hope everyone has a [beautiful/wonderful/stellar/fabulous] morning.” Every Friday he told us “Happy Friday! Have a warm and cozy weekend.” It was so minor, these little quips, but so endearing that I would race every morning to make that train, just so I could tell myself “Well, looks like I’m going to have an exciting day today!” or “It is a beautiful morning.” In June, all of a sudden he was gone, likely reassigned to another train time or track, and my commutes went back to silent staring at nothing with headphones turned all the way up.

Sometimes people have an impact on your life that is, at a glance, insignificant, but powerful in its own way. From the outside, my morning conductor is just a blip on the radar, but the cheery greetings, without fail each morning, put a little more of a bounce in my step, and every morning I still hope his voice will surprise me as I head down to the Village for another day at the office. I mean, I don’t even know what he looks like. I never introduced myself or saw him walking through the cars, or maybe I did one day but wouldn’t ever know it was him. But there are people in our lives sometimes who are important because we want them to be, and not just because they’re supposed to be. This holds true for things as minor as a usual conductor, and for things as major as the traditional definition of family. I don’t mean that garbage about “traditional family ONLY MEANS a mom and dad,” but the idea that your “family” is limited to the people that share your genes, “blood is thicker than water” and all those great cliches.

This is not to say I don’t have I have the most amazing, ridiculous, and large (quantity, not physique..) extended family. I was so blessed to be born into this clan, the crowd that still tops 30 people for the “small get-togethers” on all the major holidays; I don’t envy T having to sort through how many save-the-dates she needs to send for my dad’s side alone. Growing up, it was hard enough trying to remember which cousin was on whose side, and what aunt lived where in all these family gatherings, so imagine my surprise when at about age 9, I found out one of these families, my aunt, uncle and two cousins, were not actually related to us. CUE KIDDIE LB GASP. The one family I knew by heart, the one who spent summers by our pool, kids splashing each other and adults leaving us be (/drinking heavily, I’ve since learned), weren’t the same as my other aunts and uncles that we saw on Christmas?! “So they’re not our family?,” I remember asking Mama B after I found out, trying to sort through this weird new information about my favorite aunt and uncle. She laughed a little and let me rest my head against her side. “Of course they’re family,” she told me, stroking my hair. “They don’t have to be our blood to be our family.”

This week we said goodbye to a woman that inspired me with every breath she took, a damn good fighter until the very end. We watched her health move like a roller coaster for nearly a decade, the miracles that gave us years we never thought we’d have and the final valley where she chose, on her terms, to stay, surrounded by love and understanding. She spent her entire life surrounded by love; she was so loved by her doctors, her coworkers, her friends, the family she was so fortunate to have and the ones she chose. She was soft-spoken and poignant, poised and caring; she is and was and always will be family, she will always and forever be remembered and be loved and be missed.

Through a sea of black and tears last night, I found my cousin, someone with whom I’ve been so fortunate to share amazing memories since really reconnecting about four years ago: spontaneous happy hours, meeting his “new girlfriend,” going to their wedding, and everything in between. His sister, my other cousin, and I had hugged, and cried, and shared our favorite memories, while his dad, my uncle, kept a brave face for everyone, but my cousin and I just kind of stopped and held each other for a brief moment, and I told him “I’m so sorry” and he just hugged a little tighter. I grabbed his wife’s hand after that, the most recent, wonderful addition to our better-than-family, and told them both I promised to stop flaking (per ushe) and I would make sure we all did another city dinner soon. As I left them, we all looked each other in the eye, and with tears attached to good and sad memories, just said “Love you much.”

It’s a terrible lesson to learn, but knowing my aunt is at peace gives us hope and happiness for her. My heart breaks for my family, and what they’re going through, and it’s making me hold my siblings and my parents a little closer, these sad, cold nights. We’re all so fortunate to have and have had them in our lives for this long, and I will cherish the memories we’ve made and the ones to come forever. It’s a terrible lesson to learn indeed, losing someone you love, but it’s a reminder, and a big one, that family, and the ties that bond us, run so much deeper than blood.