Family has always been central to my well-being. At an early age, growing up in what was then British Guiana, I realized instinctively that my family was vital to my survival. My parents’ constant bickering and violent verbal exchanges threatened the unity of our nuclear family of seven: two adults and five children. Connections with the two branches of my extended maternal and paternal families tempered the fears and insecurity that unsettled my young life.
During the turbulent years of our struggle for independence from Britain, my extended families shrunk with the migration of relatives to the Mother Country. Later, when Britain tightened immigration from Guyana and its former West Indian colonies, more aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends found new havens in Canada and the United States. Loss has left its scar on my life.
When I entered the convent, I had to leave my family behind. To follow in the footsteps of Jesus demanded the total giving of self and detachment from father, mother, brothers, and sisters, as well as material possessions. The religious community became my new family. As a new and young member to the global religious family of those consecrated to God, headed by the pope in the Vatican, I questioned the double standards, the hypocrisy, the blind obedience, and the subjugation by those in authority. Among other shortcomings, I lacked the humble and obedient heart necessary to become a permanent member of my chosen religious family.
My father and youngest brother welcomed me back home. Our nuclear family had dwindled to just the three of us. A year later, my brother obtained his permanent residence papers to join my mother and sister in the United States. Two other brothers had migrated to Canada. Without the familial support I needed, I floundered to adjust to secular life and to develop new friendships. No support group existed in Guyana for former nuns and priests. Besides, most of them had migrated to other countries.
As a married woman, I became part of my husband’s extended family. Forming my own family was never part of my life’s goals. The responsibilities of motherhood overwhelmed me. I dedicated my energies to being a good wife and mother, but I could never achieve the expectations of the sensuous mate. Our nuclear family of four collapsed in Brazil. During our fourth year in Brazil and after ten years as a married couple, my husband moved in with his Brazilian lover.
In times of marital disintegration, family and close friends would rally around us to help mend our broken selves and to rebuild our lives. My family was scattered across North America. We had no residential phone connection. With my limited Portuguese speaking skills, I had few friends. To hide my desperation from my sons, I cried while taking my morning shower.
Then, the unexpected happened.
My six-year-old son had taken ill with what I learned later was bronchitis and was running a high fever. That night, I sought help from my next-door neighbor, an elderly widow who complained daily about my sons’ behavior. While she applied a local home remedy to lower his fever, she asked about his father.
“I haven’t seen your husband around for some time now,” the widow told me in Portuguese.
“He not live with us,” I told her in my broken Portuguese. “Now, he live with other woman.”
The widow spread word of my predicament among her friends in the working-class condominium complex where we lived. From that day forward, she and her female friends looked out for my sons’ safety and well-being when I was away at work. Over the following eight years, I became so attached to my newfound family that I found it difficult to move away to a better apartment. Another newfound family, that of my former boss and best friend, gave me the boost needed to undertake the scary move to one of the city’s upscale neighborhoods.
Some individuals in my adopted families did not always have our best interests and well-being at heart. Their betrayal left me wounded. Such is the nature of the family. No family is free from conflicts of one kind or another. Some families, like my birth family, are dysfunctional. Some more than others.
My adopted collective American family is dysfunctional in such diverse ways that we continue to struggle for common ground and the unified goal for the betterment of all Americans. Given the global extension of our diverse roots and branches, our intense degree of dysfunction is understandable. As in the case of my former global consecrated religious family, real change takes centuries to achieve. If at all.
Yet, as I have observed during the more than seventeen years living among my adopted collective family, disaster has a way of unifying even the most querulous and divisive among our neighbors. When we lose all our material possessions, and, worse still, some of our loved ones, we know instinctively that our recovery and survival will depend upon our collective action. In that moment, we become a family of shared purpose and goals—a relationship that may endure for years thereafter.
At this moment, in some areas across my adopted homeland and across the planet we humans all call home, people are losing lives and property to drought, wildfires, and floods. In the years ahead, these climate disasters will increase in frequency and intensity. I hold onto hope that, together with our newfound families, we will rebuild our collective broken lives.