Relationship Tips

How a Pandemic Revealed the Complexities of My ‘Chosen Family’

Nicole Schnitzler

Graphic: Well+Good Creative
It was Diane's birthday. We had just finished dinner, and our attention turned to her daughter, my lifelong friend Kristin. She was walking out of the kitchen, toward the six of us, holding a confetti cake adorned with a flickering army of light. She set it down directly in front of Diane, who was seated at the head of the table, as we sang Happy Birthday. When it came time to utter a name, I had to pause, remembering to sing “Diane” as the rest of the table harmonized “Mom.”

At this point, Kristin and I were well into our 20s, and for years, when she spoke to me about Diane, she dropped the “my” and simply called her "Mom,” sharing the sacredness of the term with me. In reality, Diane was my next-door neighbor who helped to raise me after my own mom died of lymphoma when I was 12. When my dad worked late hours and I was left to devise after-school activities and dinner for myself, it was Kristin's family of six—Diane, her husband Tim, and their four children—who invited me into their home for a different meal each night, sandwiched by homework and viewings of Sister, Sister or Clarissa Explains It All.

Within months, I became the Kimmy to their Full House, entering unannounced to find one of the four kids in the kitchen. We'd raid the cabinets for Triscuits and graham crackers before Diane came home and assigned us each a pre-dinner chore, like setting the table or filling water glasses. In time, I accompanied their family beyond our block, on drives to their summer house in Michigan, where we’d read and sunbathe, and on road trips to Canada to visit Kristin's grandparents and fill our days with rounds of cribbage, freshly cut watermelon, and sunset canoe rides.

Now, Diane, face aglow by candlelight, laughed, looked at us all, and exhaled, making several wishes. I hoped that every single one of them would come true. In singing nor in talking could I ever quite bring myself to call her what Kristin called her, but the effect of it stood. My heart sighed into the realization that even if my own family was no longer complete, I could, from time to time, be a part of one that was.

* * *

When my mom passed away, I was left in the company of men: my dad, my 17-year-old brother Kevin, and my 21-year-old brother Daniel, who has autism. With my dad at work, Kevin busy with high school affairs, and Daniel intrinsically distant, I yearned for female and familial companionship. I sought it out in the women around me, the ones my mom had helped to surround me with all her life. There was my Aunt Marianne, who had been with me in the hospital during my mom’s last days, stroking my hair as I sat on the waiting room couch. And Sally, the mother of my friend Lizzy, who taught me at age 14 the importance of looking people in the eye and extending a firm, confident handshake when meeting them. I also had Carmen, my brother Daniel’s aide, who told me that my mom would live on forever in my heart, and Merry, who showed me the importance of self-care via the St. Ives scrub and mud masks we used during “spa nights” with her daughter Kelsey. And then there was Diane, one of my mom’s closest confidantes, who took me shopping for my winter coat, ensured I had the right textbooks for math class every year, and drove me to my after-school job at a pet store 10 miles from town. The one who was there around the clock.

When my own family couldn’t give me what I needed, it was these women who did. Amongst their families, where it seemed like nothing and no one was missing, I felt what it was like to live without loss. I again had the chance, if only briefly, to witness the stability and cohesion of a full dinner table, freshly cut flowers in the pitcher, and carpools that were on time. In those moments, I rediscovered the consistency of comfort made possible by someone there who was orchestrating, facilitating, standing guard.

In other words, I rediscovered what it was like to have a mother.

* * *

In the wake of COVID-19, when authorities began to urge the nation to shelter in place—at home—a stunning and startling question set in: What if I called more than one place home?

At the onset of it all, I gathered items from my Chicago condo for what I thought would be a two-week stay at my dad’s suburban home, now just a 10-minute drive from Diane’s house and our old block. My brother Kevin was in California, so I would stay at my dad’s to help him and Daniel, whose day program would be canceled for the foreseeable future. And while I was there, I would see some of the women who helped me to stay rooted to my past and present self—Sally, Marianne, and, of course, Diane.

But as more and more precautions crept in, I felt less and less comfortable asking these women to meet in person, fearful of the chance I could somehow get them—and therefore, their families—sick. I reached out to each of them frequently with texts, calls, and Zoom invites, trying to fill the needs and the glaring gap that was beginning to set in. But the physical separation was an unavoidable reminder of the female and familial loss I had felt decades ago. It felt especially poignant when I got sick and assumed, though never confirmed, that I had the virus.

We found work-arounds. Sally dropped off gloves and a questionable-looking baggie of zinc supplements in my mailbox. Marianne texted almost daily. Diane left Epsom salts on her porch for me to pick up for the countless baths I was taking to ease my aches and pass the time. Still, I yearned for Marianne’s head strokes and Sally’s hugs (firmer than the handshake she had once taught me). And I craved the in-person, in-real-life stability I had always been able to find in Diane's home.

Several weeks later, when I was feeling better, I found myself near Diane’s and, with public bathrooms closed in many parts of town, in desperate need of reprieve. Though I once would’ve turned the knob without thinking twice, things were different now. I texted. Immediately, a response: Sure. And then, You never have to ask, Nicole—you know the code.

She wasn’t home, so I entered the back door, my eyes glancing around at the objects, colors, and furniture that had once been a part of my everyday life. On my way to the bathroom, I tripped over a new stretch of flatness connected to the living room. For decades there had been a one-inch step in that spot. They had it removed years ago, but I had never gotten used to it.

On my way back out, I passed the armoire in the foyer, catching a glimpse of the framed photos that rested upon it—ones of family reunions in Michigan, their lineage of yellow labs, close-ups of the kids. And then, a recent addition: a photo from the wedding of Diane's daughter Kelly, showcasing the bride in white, her family of five, including the kids' significant others—and me. I smiled at the sight of it, reminded of just how much I had been given over the years. Just as quickly, I grew aware of how large the room now felt without them there with me, celebrating birthdays, setting tables, doing homework.

When I arrived back home later, I paused at the door, listening for Daniel. I found him and my dad in our kitchen, making grilled cheese and warming tomato soup. “Want some?” my dad asked, putting it in front of me before I could form words to respond. I looked at the soup, then at them: my dad, 75 years old; Daniel, overweight and autistic. They were both high-risk candidates for COVID-19 who were here now, putting dinner on the table, telling me to sit, eat, stay.

Suddenly, it seemed clear what the pandemic was asking of me, and of all of us: to establish boundaries; to consider deeper lines between family and chosen family; blood and non-blood relatives, those with whom we share equal responsibility—and those with whom we may not. These were lines, I realized, I had been forced to acknowledge as much for us as for them: wearing my mask in Diane’s house, bringing my own wine and glassware to Sally’s patio a week earlier, trying to sit the requisite six feet from Marianne when I had met with her at a nearby park.

In this newly upside-down world, it seemed to make more sense than ever—that the stability I had sought and found in the families of others for so long was now available to me within my own. In front of me now, mid-pandemic and in plain sight, was my family. We had been broken by loss, but now we were reassembled—not perfect, never the same, but repaired nonetheless. In that moment, family was Daniel, my dad, and a simple question: "More soup?"

* * *

In late October, seven months into our new pandemic world, Kevin came to visit. It was the first time we had seen him since February, when he flew home for our dad’s 75th birthday—an even bigger blessing, really, considering what loomed just one month ahead.

Daniel was back in his group home, situated 10 miles away from my dad’s house. I spent several days of the week at my condo, in Chicago, and Kevin was across the country. We are as physically distant today as we emotionally were then—but things feel different. Now, we are tethered—by time and by a new kind of trial that is urging us to keep each other close when the rest of the world is telling us to stay apart.

With our dad at work, Kevin and I visited Daniel at his group home, bringing with us the basics: board games, cards, and a bag of Combos—our brother’s favorite. But when we got there, Daniel wanted to color. I handed him the pad of paper that he had been working on the week earlier, and he started sketching a series of people, masks included: first Kevin, then me, and finally, his "Gene” (he had endearingly referred to our dad by his first name for decades). Next, he moved on to a patch of pumpkins (though he told us they were, in fact, pumpkin cookies—everything somehow becomes a cookie by his hand). I watched as he carefully attempted to color inside the lines, something I had suggested during our last art session together.

Daniel grazed the orange marker back and forth within each circle before giving it a stem and moving on to the next. Kevin and I watched, looked at him, then at each other, smiling through our masks. We took a photo to share with our dad later that night. When we showed him, he stood silent for a moment. Then he sighed, smiled, and finally spoke. “You three, together,” he said. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen in months.”

Like Daniel, I was learning to color inside the lines—and along the way, realizing just how beautiful some kinds of boundaries could be.

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