Extended family relationships in close families – especially in small towns – often defy the labels they carry. Cousins are more like siblings. Aunts and uncles fill roles beyond the traditional scope. Parental best friends can be as close as any blood relations.
I see these tight-knit extended families as wonderful blessings. I don’t believe you can ever have too many people loving you, too many people in your corner.
I learned early that the building blocks of a family don’t have to be only genetic. Some of them are built through years of shared love and experiences.
When I tell you that we lost a member of our family last week, don’t look for Justin’s name on the family genetic tree. Justin was part of our “beach family.” Even that doesn’t really map the relationships correctly because we were well on our way to being family before the first beach trip.
Justin fought alcoholic demons most of his life. In spite of that and the erratic and sometimes hurtful behavior that comes with this terrible disease, Justin was a loving, irrepressible, fun and kind soul. Tributes to him, led by two written by his heartbroken older brother and one by my daughter-in-law Kinsey, have capsuled his life so beautifully that I am left with little to add.
What I do want to say as friends, family and all those who have walked these paths try to cope with Justin’s death is that his parents are my heroes.
David and Amy walked every step of Justin’s uneasy life with him. At every turn, fall and triumph, they were there. They rode the highs and lows, employed resources, knowledge and lifelines when and as they were needed, time after time after time. They never failed him.
Sometimes, this talented young man was easy to love. Many times, it was everything except easy. Sometimes, it bordered on impossible. But his parents didn’t waver. As we peripherally shared the ups and downs with them, many times we were left shaking our heads and saying, “I don’t know how you do it.”
But I think I do know how, from a lesson my mother taught me. It’s a way of dealing with difficult situations, behavior and even illnesses that she believed in, and she taught me the wise value of it.
“Love them through it.”
Whether a 5-year-old’s tantrum, a teenager’s stupidity, an adult’s demons or an innocent’s illness, my mother said you just love them through it.
“Just hang on, grab them up and wrap your heart around them,” she told me more than once. “And just love them through it.”
Amy and David loved Justin through 38 years of life. They would have loved him through 38 more. My prayer every night is that they know that. My prayer for their healing is filled with hope that now, as Justin is at peace and with a God who also loved him, his parents will find peace and solace in knowing that they always, consistently, loved him through it.
Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.