I was upstairs packing last week, and I could hear Austin talking with a friend downstairs. “I can’t come over tomorrow because we’re going to see our cousins. We’re flying on a plane to Oklahoma!”
Technically, we were traveling to see his second cousins. My cousin, Ellen, had moved with her family to Oklahoma a number of years ago and I’d never been to visit even though Ellen and I have always been really close. “Oklahoma?” everyone asked with skepticism when I mentioned I was going there. “What are you going to do there?”
“I’m going to see my family,” I said. Was any other explanation needed? Everyone who has ever known me understands how important my extended Clark family is to me. Even though many of us have changed our names and moved around the country, we still refer to each other as the “Clarks,” since that has always been our shared name. (My family, for example, are the “DC Clarks” and Ellen’s are the “Oklahoma Clarks.”)
In any case, it was 2019 and it was time to visit some cousins we hadn’t seen in a long time. So off to Oklahoma we went. We packed little and eased through the airport like old pros. All three of my kids sat quietly once we got on the airplane. People smiled at me, and I felt really proud of how well my children were behaving and how easily we were navigating traveling as a group of four.
Of course, you should never get overconfident in parenting. Five minutes after takeoff, Tommy was complaining of a stomachache. Five minutes after that, he was lying down in my lap as I held an airsick bag to his mouth. People looked at me with sympathy as they walked by us, moving their bodies ever-so-slightly away from my almost-puking child. Eventually, Tommy fell asleep without needing the airsick bag. But as we de-boarded, I felt that single-parenting exhaustion that I’d never really understood before Shawn died. (Let me be clear – I thought I understood it, as I was often alone when he worked long hours and traveled. But what I’m doing now is a totally different ball game.) Somehow, we got off, and I wearily tried to figure out where to go next.
Everyone was grumpy. No one wanted to walk to the exit. “But your cousins are there!” I pleaded with the kids. This at least got them walking.
Eventually, we got to the exit, and they spotted their cousins. Immediately, all frustration evaporated and they ran to greet them. My cousin Ellen and her parents stood with Ellen’s kids. “You all came!” I said, as we laughed and hugged. “Of course we did!” my aunt Mary said back to me. “It’s a big event when someone comes to Oklahoma City!”
Immediately, it felt like a party, as it always does when the Clark family is back together. The kids’ bad attitudes miraculously disappeared and everyone laughed and skipped around the airport. Those first few moments with the Clarks are always my favorite because the air is thick with pure joy. This time was no different. My feeling of depletion evaporated and instead I smiled watching the scene before me.
On the way home, Ellen and I chatted in the car as though we’d never been apart.
The next few days were filled with pancake-making and playing in the park and exploring all over the city. We went on a hike by a river stream and the kids skipped rocks on the water. We played basketball in the driveway for hours every day and we gathered together on the couch to watch movies at night. The kids were so happy to be together. It was something Ellen and I both knew couldn’t be faked.
One afternoon as we drove to the science museum, the song “Happier” came on the radio and the kids started to sing. I turned to watch them. All five of them were smiling and bopping along to the music, their faces plastered with that look of pure elation that only children can truly have.
But I felt it too. The joy, I mean. It felt like home. It felt like….well, it felt like how I always feel when I’m with the Clark family. Like I belong.
On the last day, I sat with Ellen and her husband Mark on their front porch in the warm afternoon sunshine. Tommy came over and snuggled in my lap as the other kids took turns shooting baskets. Ellen and I sampled the local beer and the three of us chatted.
“I hope you had a good time in Oklahoma,” Ellen said.
“Oh, it was so great,” I said, “though it probably didn’t matter where we went. The kids just wanted to see their cousins.”
“Our kids feel the same way,” Mark said. “When we went to DC, we asked them what their favorite thing was and they said, ‘seeing our cousins!’”
We all laughed. “It’s funny,” Ellen said, “they don’t really understand that they are actually second cousins. To my kids, your kids are just their cousins.”
“Exactly,” I said. “I love that.”
We all parted in the way that we do with Clarks – with lots of hugs and promises to see each other soon. “Don’t worry,” I told the kids at the airport, “we’ll see your cousins again in just a few months in Texas. In fact, we’ll see our whole Clark family.” This made them a bit happier.
As we flew home, I thought about how lucky I was to have been born into a family like the Clarks. Not everyone, I knew, was close to their extended family.
But here’s the thing – they don’t feel “extended” to me or to my kids. Ellen and Mark and their kids and all the other Clarks….they just feel like family.
I’ve been redefining my own concept of “family” for the past year and a half. But when I start to really think about it, I’ve always had an expansive idea of what constitutes family. Family has always been those people who surrounded me – my aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins. Even as I grew up, I didn’t think of my family as merely my sister and my mom and my dad. “Family” was more than just a few people that surrounded me on a daily basis. “Family” were those people who loved me as I grew up, and now they are the people who love my kids too.
All my life, family has always been the group of people who wait for us at the airport, who make my kids pancakes in the morning and who hoist my kids on their backs as we move through a crowd. They are the people who have shown up for us in Oklahoma and Texas and everywhere in-between as we navigate this new world without Shawn.
They are my family. They are the Clarks.