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John Engel: Far from home, a new view on family

Connecting with family is a challenge. Distance, time and cost are the typical excuses — separation and hardship the result. So, determined to see my niece, Kristen, perform in her final season of high school marching band, I scheduled my first solo visit with family since becoming a father six years ago.

The night before my departure, I was anxious about wrapping up work details, my wife Lori juggling the kids alone for four days, missing Zoe and Adam, and unpredictable dynamics with my family, mostly the latter.

Restless and irritable I was ready to cancel the trip. Lori told me I would regret that, I had talked about doing this for a long time, and it would be good for me to go. She is always right about such matters.

Come morning, I was delighted to relearn the simple pleasure of traveling alone.

With my one carry-on-bag, I shuttled to the airport, passed through security and boarded the plane in record time. Onboard, no one was climbing on my lap, there were no diaper changes in a cramped lavatory at 30,000 feet, I completed two hours of paperwork and the flight arrived 10 minutes early.

Pacing myself, I had lunch with a long-time friend, picked up my rental car, and meandered through old haunts, noticing that, on the outside, things appeared unchanged.

By late afternoon, I picked up my mother. We enjoyed the most uninterrupted conversation we’ve had in years, grabbed a bite to eat and headed off to the game.

Under a flood of stadium lights, we shuffled through the over-flow crowd and scored front row seats where my sister joined us.

A new rubberized track encircled the field; I recalled races I ran here decades ago.

Cliques of teens roamed: boisterous, pierced, underdressed, incessantly texting. Parents of Kristen’s classmates surrounded us; most appeared my age. A thousand miles away, my kindergartner and preschooler were tucked in their beds.

The moon climbed into view, while announcements were blurted from the press box. The stadium buzzed with excitement and finally, the band marched onto the field. The director’s arms waved, a rhythmic mix of drums and horns echoed throughout the stands, and flags twirled, as nearly 150 students paced through tightly choreographed maneuvers.

As my sister guided me to key viewing points, filling me in on previous marches and the band’s winter trip to Disney World, we were talking with, and not at, each other. Separated by four years, five grades and a lifetime of misunderstanding, our relationship has been defined more by differences than similarities. But this night, witnessing the glow of her motherly pride, relating more as parents than siblings, I saw her anew.

When we joined Kristen and her band mates following the half-time show, I, too, was proud. When her father left she was 4. When her great-grandmother, a pillar in our lives, died, she was 10. When her older sister and only sibling moved three states away, she was 14.

Yet, charting her own path, she makes healthy choices, finds success in the classroom, maintains a job, sometimes two, and confidently performs before a Homecoming crowd, where even the chinstrap of her majorette hat cannot hide her smile. No less amazing, she and her mother, amidst turbulent mother-and-teenage-daughter years, have found a way to co-exist.

As a single parent, my sister has faced challenges I hope never to endure. As a father, I now appreciate that, like our parents, she placed time with her children ahead of professional advancement, prioritized the stability of a simple home, and ensured that her daughters experienced quality time with family elders. Recognizing that my wife, Lori, and I have made similar choices reminds me that beneath family differences lay common roots.

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