Families are magnificently complicated. They bend and shift to include new members based on shared lineage, marriage, and choice. These days family trees take on odd shapes. Limbs poke out of nowhere and tangle around one another. Red Oaks mix with Longleaf Pines to create something entirely new and utterly perfect.
Few people understand this pattern better than folks in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities. We tend to find family in our communities. Those of us in same-sex relationships often need to become creative in-order to raise children. We enter relationships with children born from opposite sex unions. We adopt. We donate sperm. We find surrogates. We birth babies. We raise the babies our partners’ have birthed. It’s messy, but it’s real.
Last Christmas my (far bigger than me) little brother brought a girlfriend home. I wasn’t surprised by this. Finding girlfriends was never a problem for my brother. Staying with them has proved far more difficult. She brought children into the relationship with her. Experiencing the magic of the holidays through the eyes of tiny people who hear reindeer hoofs and tear open gifts like the secret of life might be in the bottom of the box is always exciting. But I was determined not to get attached.
But then I actually met Lisa and Alyssa and Reid. And I witnessed my brother fall absolutely and completely head over heels in love for the very first time. And all efforts to remain detached went out the frosted, snow-covered, window.
In the months that followed I watched as my brother, who for many years had stubbornly refused to settle down, was softened and matured by the love of a woman. And in finding that kind of love he has created a branch of our family tree that we suddenly couldn’t live without.
So when he proposed to Lisa and asked me to help plan a wedding that would be taking place in just a few short months I was honoured. I traveled from Ottawa to Sudbury to go dress shopping, to plan timelines, to shop for decorations. I helped my wife make invitations. I painted a couch in the bright turquoise colour of their wedding for a photo prop. I made tissue paper pom-poms, set-up tables, did the bride’s make-up, and wrote a speech. And somewhere in the middle of it all I wondered why I had taken on so much.
And then in the middle of my brother’s ceremony, before the minister asked them to exchange rings and make their union official, my brother invited his step-daughter up to the front of the service. At six feet and five inches tall he towered above the blonde haired eight year old. With a tremble in his voice, and tears that needed to be blinked back, he said the following:
Alyssa, before I marry your mother I need to ask your permission to become your dad. If you will allow me I will promise today to keep our family together and to love you for the rest of my life. Will you accept this necklace as a symbol of our becoming a family?
His giant hands pulled a tiny interlocking heart necklace from his pocket and he placed it around her neck as her smile got big enough to take over her whole face.
My heart filled with so much pride for my big little brother. And every minute spent making tissue paper pom-poms seemed entirely worth-while.
My brother and I grew up with very little in common. But as adults we have one very important shared experience. I am raising my biological child with a partner who is not biologically related to that child. My brother is raising children he is not biologically related to with a partner who is.
Sometimes family trees grow in the traditional way. Roots form, a trunk is established, and branches develop. Other times those roots tangle up with the roots from a different tree. They twist and mingle until it is unclear where one ends and the other begins. Pine needles mix with red oak leaves and the world makes very little and entirely perfect sense.