Family is interesting because you don't get to choose. You get what you get.
Sure, you can choose to interact or not, to be an active participant in different lives or not, but who you are and where you fit, in an objective sense, is out of your control.
When I had my first baby, I became a mom. My husband became a dad. Whether my brothers were interested or not, they became uncles. My parents became grandparents regardless of whether they were ready to think of themselves that way yet. A new life creates labels like "cousin" and "great-aunt" and "niece" automatically. When I chose to become a parent it imposed new levels of identity up and down my family tree forever and always.
I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a cousin (in all its varieties of removed and numerated), an aunt, a niece, a sister-in-law, a half-sister-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and at one time a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter. By choosing to become a wife I turned other people into in-laws without their consent and in some cases without their knowledge.
Family means being intertwined in history in a way that friendships and working relationships can't match, regardless of the true meaning and relevance of it all. You become part of someone's future genealogy research as a branch of a tree you did not plant.
I am who I am, but what I mean to others is up to them and changes with the context of the role. If I say, "I love you" to my husband it means something different than if I say it to my mom or my children or my cousin or dear friend or my oblivious dog. I do not get to decide how they interpret it. I do not get to decide if they love me back.
I also, in a very real sense, don't get to write my own narrative. I make my own decisions and choose how to behave in the world, but others ultimately determine what parts of my story are told and how to describe what I've done. I may try to make someone feel at ease, but my success in doing so is solely the right of the other person to conclude. I am not the one who gets to announce that I am a good daughter or sister. I do my best, but I don't get the final say. If I look like a good parent to others, but my children don't think so, theirs is the only vote that matters, because in that role they are the only ones in a position to judge.
I can console myself if I think someone's judgement is wrong, because often it can be, since no one has all the information necessary to truly understand another. I can tell myself I'm good enough in any particular role in order to get through the day, and maybe I am, but ultimately someone else's truth may be what's handed down as the official version.
I don't offer advice much anymore, because the older I've gotten the fewer things I'm certain of. But this I know: Do not take love for granted, however casually it seems to be offered at times. I've always known this, but it's the single point in my life that gets driven home again and again in new ways with each passing year and each new loss.
When I think back to my teenage years and how easily I dismissed expressions of love because they seemed too common, I cringe. I was embarrassed when my grandpa wanted to help me on my paper route, but he understood and loved me anyway. I want that moment back to do over. I want another round of cards with my grandma at her kitchen table that I'm sure at some point I felt I didn't have time for. I want a day to sit and draw with my dad in my dining room when he was no longer very mobile, but I left him to go to work. I should have taken off work. As my children slip into adulthood I should take more days off work now.
We always think there will be more time, or more hugs or more "I love yous." Those gropey toddler hugs that seemed suffocating way back when--those are golden. I miss those. Everything ends and we don't get a say about it.
Those casual "I love you" moments, where they feel cast off and out of habit--those are a gift. Those moments when love is easy like breathing, those are where life is best. Because we are intertwined with others regardless, but when there is love in the mix--particularly both directions--we are truly among the most fortunate on earth.