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Opinion | A family tree, broken branches, and brand new growth

Family truly is what one makes it. Sure, we have blood relatives, but there is so much more to family than just blood.

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If you have missed this column for a couple weeks, it’s because my family has undergone a sea-change. Our “Dajas” had a baby, Isla Ray, on Aug. 16, the day before their fourth wedding anniversary.

Sara Kate conceived the baby through in vitro fertilization. Her wife, Nicole, is right by her side as any caring partner would be. It was not a smooth birth. After two days of labor, the doctors decided on a c-section. Isla Ray was born with a serious heart issue and underwent surgery at two weeks old to fix problems with the aorta and pulmonary arteries, which were on the same side of her heart. The surgery was a success, and, to the doctors, nurses, and my daughters’ amazement, Isla Ray is making a remarkably speedy recovery. She may be released from the hospital in a week or so.

These women – Nicole, Sara Kate, and a little newborn girl – along with my wife, Veronica, make up our immediate family.

We are a family. Veronica and I have been since we were married nearly 43 years ago. Nicole joined our family in 2004 when she came to UAB to play women’s volleyball on a scholarship. She “adopted” us. From northern California, Nicole had no parents nearby to attend family volleyball functions in Birmingham. Before long, Nicole was bringing other school friends and teammates to our house for parties and dinner and studying, and for four years, Veronica and I attended a lot of volleyball matches at UAB; we loved it.

After Nicole adopted us, she called Veronica “maja” and me “faja” and we called her “daja.” It’s not just silly fun, that play on words. We’ve taken it seriously, and so has Nicole. Now, mostly, I just call Nicole our daughter. She doesn’t mind, and we know it’s true. She is part of our family forever.

After graduating UAB (marketing degree) and working in Birmingham for about five years, she landed a good job in California. There she met Sara Kate, they married (Aug. 17, 2018), and the rest is family history. We took to Sara Kate during our first meeting (before the girls were married), at my 60th birthday party, and she apparently took to us.

Both Sara Kate and Nicole wanted children, so they started working on getting pregnant. The result is Isla Ray, born 8 pounds, 13 ounces, strong, determined, or, as Sara Kate calls her, “our #lionheart.”

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When Nicole came out, her biological parents didn’t take it well. I’m glad Veronica and I were there for her. When Nicole and Sara Kate were married, Sara Kate’s family was all in. Nicole’s brother attended the wedding, but her parents were absent.When I went to San Diego, where the daughters now live, for the wedding, Nicole asked me to walk her down the aisle (with her brother). I did. And I gave the wedding toast and then showed my dancing prowess during the daddy dance with Nicole to P!nk’s “Perfect” (clean version).

All of that to underscore: This is my family.

At one time, though, long before we met Nicole, I was told that because Veronica and I didn’t have children, we weren’t a family at all.

The politician telling me this, during an editorial board meeting where he was seeking our newspaper’s endorsement, was, of course, a Republican. But this guy was spewing such misinformation long before our nation experienced the disaster that is Donald Trump. I asked this Republican point-blank, in front of the other editorial board members, if he considered Veronica and me to be a “family,” since we didn’t have children.

“We didn’t want to have children,” I told the bigot.

“Then you’re not a family,” the bigot said.

“So, what’s the deal with a man and woman who have fertility issues and cannot have children?”

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“They can adopt,” he said.

He didn’t consider heterosexual couples without children a family. He certainly did not consider homosexual couples a family, regardless of whether they had children. He didn’t address mixed-race couples, but I saw exactly where he was going: Basically, white couples with children.

Of course, this dude is an idiot, and our newspaper did not endorse him.

However, already at this time – long before these fascist far-right conservatives began to influence American politics – Republican intent to re-structure American society in their own sorry image was already under way.

Not “live and let live,” y’all, but “live like I tell you to live, and shut up about it.”

Sometimes, we don’t draw the best biological families. While I had a great relationship with my mother, she died young. My sisters? Up and down; my politics are a problem. My father? He was a drunk. Years of our frustration and despair and begging never amounted to much, so while this man was still my biological father, he was not my “family.”

Nicole is my daughter. Sara Kate is my daughter. Isla Ray is my granddaughter. Sara Kate’s family members are my in-laws. We all do just fine. My colleagues at Alabama Political Reporter are my family. My family is large and includes them and my very best friends. It’s reciprocal.

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And, yes, they all want Veronica and me, too.

Family truly is what one makes it. Sure, we have blood relatives, but there is so much more to family than just blood. Indeed, we cannot choose our blood relatives, and we know that often leads to a family’s destruction or worse.

Nicole and Sara Kate have been a profound blessing to us and our lives. Isla Ray, in all her Lion Heart glory, is a wonderfully welcomed addition. We already dote on this new baby girl.

Don’t tell me the concept of “family” is so formulaic that a husband and wife who love each other dearly but don’t have children cannot be a “family.”  Don’t throw that hateful crap at me or MY family. We aren’t buying it.

By the way, I have a niece who was born a nephew. She’s fully transitioned and, today, is a successful woman, a lawyer, who lives her life as God intended – being her damned self.

But that’s a later column, if I ever write it.

Right now, I’m kind of obsessed with three-week-old Isla Ray, wondering what kinds of barriers she’ll break in her life, what contributions she’ll leave behind, what she’ll call Veronica and me when she’s old enough to call us anything.

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No way were we ever going to have a daughter. We have two. Never were we going to be grandparents, but here we are.

Ain’t life grand?

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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