At my parents’ wedding, my father pulled a pair of blue and white, polka-dotted boxer shorts out from under my mother’s dress instead of a garter.
They are an amorous combination of all the beautiful things from northern New Jersey and Long Island—an ideal amalgamation of assertiveness and jest. They are supportive and forgiving, as my brothers and I have diligently and sometimes mistakenly tested. They loved us even when Dan got ejected from an Amateur Athletic Union baseball game for launching a helmet into the dugout. They loved us even when they found a tattoo on Chris’ bicep as we prepared dinner one Christmas Eve. They loved us even when my brother tackled me through our basement wall.
When I was growing up, I was a fraction of this family, a part of the whole. I was in both the foreground and background, sometimes by choice and sometimes by default. But no matter the circumstance, we always assumed a certain togetherness that I naively understood as a matter of default.
My parents’ near-impeccable grip on reality and distinctly optimistic demeanor seem entirely natural—an innate and uncomplicated vision of the world that is unwavering in its positivity and clear in separating the petty from the profound. They constantly remind me to put my concerns in perspective, challenging me to distinguish the things in my life that will continue to matter from those worth leaving to collect dust. Their perception of me is a better evaluation than my own. They have an uncanny and all-too-uncommon capacity to enjoy life and ensure that those they are surrounded by do the same.
But what has constructed the optimistic vision my parents are so adamant about sharing was not a life of handouts or unparalleled privilege. There wasn’t ever the slightest rose-colored tint to their glasses. They were tested and tried. They were forced to determine matters of import from those of excess, and it is oft a challenge to imagine how they did. I imagine myself in their shoes—in a pair of my mom’s loafers or my dad’s perfectly polished patrol boots from his career with the New Jersey State Police. I couldn’t do what they do, and I couldn’t do what they’ve done. Of this I am sure.
My mother was married in a beautiful and traditional white gown to a man she loved dearly. Soon after, two would become three with the birth of their first son, Christopher Wayne. It was 1983, and her future plans were as big as her fashionably styled hair. She was elated and she was eager. And then, she was a widow.
It is almost unfathomable to envision my mother in the wake of tragedy. She is an impeccable 5-feet-7-inch combination of strength and compassion. She became a single mother who did not waste a moment lamenting the unsanctity and unfairness of human life. She did not have to love again, but she did have to live. And in her characteristic and unquestioning morality, she did both.
My father is a member of the 95th Class of the New Jersey State Police Academy, donning a badged uniform of blue and gold through his 25 years on the force until he retired as a lieutenant. He worked days, sometimes nights or overtime or weekends or holidays. His commitment to honor, duty and fidelity has overflowed into our home, and his ability to meet and love my mother and the son she had been raising is a testament to his exuberance. He is built of sheer grit and muscle, hardened by his career and what he’s witnessed—but he is softened and lighthearted from it just the same. He too has experienced an inability to control the ways of the world. He lost a brother to cancer in his youth and both parents to the same in due time. My parents have been forced to face fate in unfavorable ways, but have been remarkably united by the same power.
Fate might form family, but family isn’t fueled by fate. Family takes work and trust and a pragmatic approach to reality. I struggle to wipe away the proverbial sweat from the small stuff that I continuously embroil myself in, and I often lack even the tiniest measure of sense. Breakups. Breakdowns. Minor falsehoods, failures, faults and malfunctions. The overarching, ever-present truth exists in the miniscule impression of these inconsequential instances down the long road. More than anything we must remember not to live, but to be alive.
From outside the fishbowl, my family and presumably many, many others seem untouched by tragedy and bound by an assumed and uncontested understanding, but this is often merely half of the story. Those with the greatest grip on reality today are the ones who had to face it in days past, learning that moments of hardship are merely moments, and there is an innumerable lifetime of moments worth living for beyond those.
Ashley Camano is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Friday. You can follow Ashley on Twitter @camano4chron.