I thought I knew what a family was. I had a mom and a dad, an older sister three years older than me, and a younger sister two years below me. My sisters and I were all born from the same parents in the same hospital and lived and were raised under the same roof. That’s what a family was: people who shared the same blood, had the same parents, and resembled each other.
Flash forward ten years and I’m standing against the hustle and bustle of the Orlando Airport watching people frantically scurrying to security, pulling their luggage onto the moving ramps, and stressing over flight cancellations. In the midst of it all, I see a woman holding a “welcome home” poster and that alone brings me back ten years. I am my seven-year-old self standing amidst the stress and chaos of the Boston Logan Airport, not letting it affect me in any way. My excitement is at its highest as my sisters and cousins sip IBC root beer, giggling while my grandpa tries to eat crab cakes without his teeth. It didn’t matter that we were tired. It didn’t matter that my extended family took up an entire three large tables at the airport restaurant and told stories too loud while other customers were trying to enjoy their dinner. All that mattered was I was meeting my new brother today.
A year or two before this day, this wouldn’t have happened, but plans change and things happen. My mother was expecting a fourth child. Our new addition to the family was going to be just like us- a baby boy or girl born from my parents, sharing my blood. Family. But the tide turned and a storm came. My mother had an unfortunate miscarriage that devastated her and our family. We thought that dream of a fourth sibling was lost forever.
Healing time passed and I learned that dream was not unattainable. My parents looked into Wide Horizons, an adoption agency connected with countries all over the globe, and talked about welcoming a baby into our home. After contacting people and searching all over, they finally received word on a three-month-old baby boy from Ethiopia that was put up for adoption by his aunt, after his eighteen-year-old mother left him in her care and ran off. My parents eagerly accepted the offer. His name was Sintayehu. But, I know him as Ty.
After what seemed like light years of waiting and preparing, my mom told my sisters and I that my dad and Uncle Sean were coming home from Ethiopia the next day with the now six month-old baby. My seven year old self immediately scurried over to our PC with a piece of blank white paper and a box of crayolas. I searched “Ethiopian flag” on Google and began my masterpiece. It would hang next to our “Welcome Home” banner in our living room, right next to the American flag: our two worlds collided.
Ty still has my crayon Ethiopian flag, my welcome home present. He keeps it in one of the three drawers under his big trundle bed in his room, along with his birth certificate, his Baptism candle, and the Ethiopian outfit he wore when he met my father. When he was still small enough, he’d put the outfit on sometimes and excitedly show us all. Ty holds pride in his story. Even as a toddler who didn’t truly understand, Ty never held back from sharing his background. My mother would push him in a grocery cart and if someone complimented him or started conversation, he’d reply, “I’m from Ethiopia” with a beaming smile.
That beaming smile brought a whole new element to our family. We had brought home this tiny little baby with a huge personality. As he grew older, more and more characteristics of his personality began to show. Ty was happy. He had this huge smile that brought dimples to his cheeks and started a chain reaction of smiles throughout our house. He was very smart. He could hold conversation with anyone and was able to absorb facts like no one else I knew. One morning I woke up and Ty recited an entire infomercial to me he had just seen that morning. Ty was gentle and kind. Most boys in our family had gone through a tough stage where they would push, shove, or punch everyone around, but Ty never did. He didn’t push or shove. If anything, he just used his words. Ty was funny. He’d walk around the house wearing costumes and his dancing alone could bring tears of laughter into one’s eyes. Even a dim-lit room would shine bright when Ty walked in.
I never thought I needed a brother. I thought I could get along just having my sisters around, and maybe I could. But there is something so different in a brother-sister relationship. I was blessed with my grandmother’s patience, which allowed me to see beyond a young boy’s irritable habits and immense amounts of energy, and see Ty for his heart, mind, and intentions. Ty showed me a whole new perspective on life through his own lense. He had the ability to bring my mind at rest, especially in moments I needed it the most. Throughout high school, I struggled with anxiety, which interfered with my ability to sing and perform on stage in musicals, plays, or choirs. When the going got tough, I looked in the crowd and saw Ty’s wide eyes and familiar smile staring back at me whispering “go on Hayley”. I’d roll my shoulders back, stand up straight and tall, and perform because my little brother, our family’s gift, was out there watching me, so I could get through it.
Ty’s adoption brought some conflict. My mom would push her African American son around in a stroller and receive cold stares and grimaces from some onlookers. For them, even in the twenty-first century, it seemed odd to have a child of a different race in your family. However, for my family, these cold stares brought laughter. It was hard for us to picture our lives without Ty. I didn’t wake up every morning and think “this is my non-biological brother.” Ty was my family. I often forgot we came from different blood. He fit so well in our family’s jigsaw puzzle that he had completed after so many years.
When the flight arrival time approached us, I remember eagerly rushing towards the gates with all of my family, holding the welcome home sign. I could barely see through the crowd of people gathered around us, but in the corner of my eye I could catch a glimpse of my Uncle Sean, sweaty and exhausted after a long flight from Ethiopia. But where was my dad and the new baby? Just as I thought that they had gotten lost, I saw my own exhausted, pale, and thin father carrying this little bundle of joy in his arms towards us. My mom hurried up to him and he placed the baby in her arms and, with a tear-filled smile, she said hello to Tyesin. My sisters and I surrounded the new baby. I grabbed his hand and saw his smile light up my world for the first time.
“Do we really get to keep him?” I repeated for about the eighth time since I saw him. As I said before, I thought I knew what a family was. But in the peace of the car ride home from Logan Airport in June 2005, I felt what a family truly is. A family isn’t connected by a blood line. It’s not sharing the same physical characteristics or even the same biological parents. A family is when you’re driving in a car, heading for home, in the quiet of a summer night and you can hear each person in the vehicle’s heart matching rhythm and the tiny bundle in the car seat next to you becomes, no longer a person, but a gift. Then in the heat of the summer air and the smell of the streets you feel something fill an absence you never knew existed. That “something” is completeness.
I flash ahead. I’m in the now. Our plane home from Orlando has just arrived and we’re beginning to board step by step, little by little. Ty takes his seat next to me, my life coach through my fear of flying. He squeezes my hand “Hayley, we are going to get through this.” He smiles at me. My brother smiles at me and I smile back. Do we really get to keep him?