"What?" I asked, confused. I don't remember what I'd said, only that I truly was perplexed. It was just another ordinary conversation, and I had mentioned my uncle Doug.
"That you refer to him as your uncle."
"Well, he is, isn't he?!" I replied, now more irritated than confused.
I don't know what we said or did next. I only remember how I felt. But now that two or three decades have passed, I have some idea of what she meant. After all, I can't count the times I've heard some version of "oh... you're the mom." Blood relations are a given. Other ones are not.
Except in my family, they were. My grandparents were all about fostering and adoption, long before it was in the news, long before it was "a thing." Doug, he was one of the foster kids. For the longest time, I didn't know, or didn't know I knew. To me, he was a beloved uncle, someone to make me laugh and give me sweets. Sure, I knew his last name was Mason, that he wasn't blessed with the Dennis neck –or lack thereof– but it never occurred to me that for some people, that might matter. Not, that is, until I adopted three kids of my own. Our family's "normal" is still, for far too many people, strange.
This sense of family has been much on my mind lately, partly because I'm trying to write a book about my son, partly thanks to my work with the ATN blog, where every week I get to share other families' stories. This week, though, it's almost entirely because, well, Uncle Doug died, and with him, a piece of my family's collective heart. I know he's better off now, enjoying a long-deserved rest after a life filled with his infectious smile, but also hard work and many sorrows. I can see him rough-housing with his dog, Jake, laughing with his wife, my aunt Joan, and their daughter, Donna, two beautiful souls he lost far too soon. Plus there's my grandparents. How good it must be for all of them to be together. I miss my kids after only a day. They'd been apart for years.
Still, it hurts, the pain made worse by the fact that I can't get to the funeral, won't be able to say a proper goodbye. Maybe this will work instead:
Thank you, Uncle Doug, for loving me and my kids, not like we were your own, but because we were. Goodbye for now. Someday we'll meet again.