Years ago, on a crisp autumn morning, I exited the busy streets of London and walked down the sterile corridors of the Royal London hospital. Local art hung on the walls in an attempt to make the ward more cheerful; fluorescent lights beamed overhead, bells were going off and “Code blues!” ringing out.
I was weary and my body was on high alert. For a week I had gotten very little sleep. A group of us had been tag teaming, coming and going, making sure a friend and her newborn son were not alone.
My friend gave birth without a husband or significant other, but she had friends by her side. The birth turned into a near-fatal experience and she had to spend a week in the hospital. Throughout that week she was accompanied by members of our community.
This little one had entered into our midst; he and his mother were decidedly not alone, even though they might appear so if you looked at the usual forms.
Being who we are, we broke most of the hospital rules.
One of the guys came to visit one afternoon and took the baby for a stroll, giving him a look at the London skyline while my friend had her dressings changed. Unbeknownst to him, he wasn’t supposed to leave the ward. Oops!
And visiting hours technically ended if you weren’t related, but we just quietly slipped in and out and kept acting like we belonged. We knew we belonged to one another.
The day before my friend was due to check out, I walked up to the nurses’ station and one of them casually said, “We’ve never seen anything like it.” Apparently, we had become the talk of the hospital staff.
She went on to say, “The love that flows out of that room…that mother and child are going to be OK. We just can’t figure out how any of you are connected, but it is clear there is love. I hope you keep doing what you’re doing.”
Over the course of my life I’ve seen strangers become friends and friends become family. My mother modeled this way of living. I experienced it in my youth group, and I’ve been chasing it ever since. This closeness is a million miles from our societal norms of isolation, individualism and self-reliance at all cost. And it’s a huge part of what makes my life sustainable as well as beautiful.
At the beginning of the year, I found myself in another hospital room, this time thousands of miles from urban London. I had traveled to Alaska, in the dead of winter, and arrived to find my mother on the brink of death.
I wasn’t alone caring for my mother in this hospital room, any more than I had been when I was caring for my friend and her newborn son.
Linda, 10 years my senior, arrived right on my heels from Texas. Linda and I shared the load at the hospital, one of us doing days and the other nights. Her daughter, who calls my mother Mimi, came for a few days as well. We were a true team.
In the weeks we spent at the hospital, caring for my mother and getting to know the nurses and doctors, I realized they too were trying to figure out how we were related. In that dark and sterile room, I could clearly see, for the first time, that my mother was the first to imprint on me this woven patchwork of family.
Linda worked for my mother in Texas, helping care for my grandfather when he was in his final months, and she travelled to Alaska during several of my mother’s surgeries. Her daughter, Bianca, spent summers with my mother and stepfather in Alaska.
Linda calls my mother “Mom” and phones her frequently – in truth more frequently than I do. On this trip, I realized something my mother had realized and embraced for decades: Linda really is part of our family.
It wasn’t until I was on the brink of losing my mother that I realized how she modeled for me ways to love the stranger; how to trust that strangers can become friends and friends will become the family who bring richness to life.
Did my mother live this way – long before someone made up the word “framily” – because her capacity for loving strangers was naturally high? Or because she was so aware she couldn’t do life on her own? She grew up in a fragile family system, having lost her own mother to suicide when she was a young adult, and she craved a good and healthy family for my brother and me. So she wove one together from the patchwork of people that populated our lives.
I learned in these hospital stays that those who have people with them in hospitals get better care. It isn’t supposed to be this way, but it is. And yet, as I surveyed the wards this past January there were very few patients that had people really with them. I’m so grateful that my mother survived, and I’m sure it is in some part due to being surrounded by her wide, untraditional family.
Recently, The Atlantic revealed the results of the longest study on human happiness. The findings showed that deep relationships are the key to well-being. By all measures, they are simply the most essential characteristic of the good life. It isn’t wealth – it’s people, it’s relationships – that enrich our lives.
Seth Godin, in his CreativeMornings/NYC talk, “Thinking Backwards,” proclaims we are in the connection economy. This should be good news for people like me, who come from Christian backgrounds and claim to follow Jesus, but I’m not sure it is.
This leaves me wondering: Where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?
Long-standing traditions of hospitality to the stranger are embedded in our ancient heritage, dating back to ethical standards spelled out in Hebrew Scripture. However, many contemporary churches I know operate more like enclaves of race, class and privilege, more concerned with keeping tradition than offering sources of mutuality and deepening belonging as the early church did. Revitalizing a heritage of hospitality where friends become family offers something the world really needs right now.
Has the search for Mr. or Ms. Right narrowed our imagination of family and community? My friend who gave birth in the London hospital received more support than many wives receive from their husbands. But it wasn’t a one-way street; our caregiving was completely mutual, nourishing to us all. Those of us who don’t have children of our own cherish the very special relationship we have with this growing boy.
We spend the high holidays of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving together as well as the ordinary Sundays enjoying the company of one another. We are friends, of course. But to say “friends” is an understatement. We are more than friends, more than community: we’ve done life together for well over a decade.
We are from different classes, hold different political views, and have different marital status. We’ve witnessed weddings and baptisms together, created campaigns, labored to build houses together, attended births and funerals. We show up for each other in mourning and celebration.
The “we” is both a small group that sees each other weekly and a wider network of friends that exceeds 100. These relationships were built in action projects and over countless meals. Even though our community life has changed as people move and organizations evolved, the people stay committed to one another.
We might describe these connections as “chosen family,” people that intentionally choose to do life together regardless of blood or marriage. It is a choice you have to keep choosing because with any relationship come bumps and bruises as well as joy and levity. All relationships take work and intention.
These hospital vignettes show a life full of connection and interdependence, but it’s because it is a life rooted in love. Love builds connection, connection breaks down boundaries and creates value. This gift and reality is born out of ongoing formation in ways of being that value belonging: they run counter to a culture of quick fixes and feel-good moments.
It takes sacrifice and repeated acts of showing up. I am learning – in the hospital rooms of 80-somethings and birthday parties for 8-year olds – that when we do this over time, friends become family. We transform our individual lives, yes, and also the possibilities for our collective humanity.
This leaves me wondering: where is this runaway train of a culture that prizes individualism and self-sufficiency taking us? Does it take from us the one thing that truly makes a life good?